Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Frank Lloyd Wright has inspired architects . . . and storytellers. Even during
Wright’s life, Ayn Rand sought him out, seeing him as a prototype for
Howard Roark, the hero of
The Fountainhead. But Wright gave Rand the
brush-off, and as a result the novelist needed to rely on her imagination
rather than on any first-hand experiences with the
famous architect. Since then, the romance between
Wright and Mamah Cheney has inspired Daron
Hagen’s opera
Shining Brow (1993) Nancy Horan’s
novel
Loving Frank (2007)—with a film in the works
—and now T.C. Boyle’s
The Women.

Mamah Cheney may have been the tragic love of
Wright’s life, and her murder in 1914 at the hands
of a crazed servant (who also killed six other
members of the household) certainly stands out
as the most lurid event in the architect’s often
tabloidesque career. But Boyle downplays the
sensationalistic aspects here, instead comprehend-
ing that Wright’s relationship with Cheney set in
motion peculiar behavioral patterns that would echo in his later courtship of
(and eventually marriages with) Maude "Miriam" Noel and Olga (Olgivanna)
Ivanovna Lazovich. Boyle artfully combines these three romances into the
larger narrative of his novel
The Women, which explores the paradox of a
man who could be an independent thinker and visionary in his public career,
but mindlessly trapped in recurring, self-destructive patterns in his private
life.

This is not your typical work of historical fiction. Boyle immediately sets out
an odd yet strangely effective post-modern context for his story in an
introduction that presents the book as written by Tadashi Sato, a Japanese
former student of Wright’s, and translated into English by Sato’s Irish-
American grandson-in-law, Seamus O’Flaherty. Throughout the novel Sato-
san intrudes, via footnotes and discursive introductions to the various
sections of the book, in an obtrusive Nabokovian manner. Yet this device,
which sounds rather heavy-handed, actually works brilliantly in practice,
and some of the finest scenes in the novel take place when the famous
architect and his lovers step into the background, and the self-effacing
Tadashi Sato takes center stage.

But this is not the only structural twist to a novel that, at times, seems as
boldly conceived as one of Wright’s own works. Boyle also decides to
reverse the chronological order of the three “love stories” he is presenting
in his novel. Thus he starts with the account of Wright’s third marriage, to
the Montenegrin dancer and Gurdjieff disciple Olgivanna Lazovich, only then
moving on to second wife Miriam Noel, and finally finishing with the story of
Mamah Cheney.

This approach both makes evident the recurring patterns in Wright’s love
life, and also imparts a pointed ironic tinge to key events in his personal
history. The reader may find it hard to repress a wry smile after moving from
the opening section of the book, which depicts Miriam Noel as a crazy,
vindictive woman who will go to any extreme to wreak havoc on Wright’s
life, into the next interlude in Boyle’s story in which this same woman is the
architect's idealized and doting lover. Do all of our lives seem so blind and
misguided when viewed in reverse? I hope not, but Boyle might make you
uneasy on that score.

Frank Lloyd Wright—at least as depicted in these pages—seems to make
the same mistakes and bad judgments over and over again. At times, the
pattern is so stark that it is almost comic. Miriam tries to get Wright
arrested on Mann Act charges and have his lover investigated by
immigration authorities—yet only a few years earlier, Miriam was harassed
with these same two bogus allegations. Wright’s clumsy interactions with
the press, his mismanagement of personal finances, his narcissistic dealings
with family and supporters, his bad choices in romance . . . each of these
recurs with a sense of blind inevitability in Boyle’s account.

Except for the interruptions by Sato,
The Women avoids the first-person
voice. Yet Boyle constantly adapts his narrative style to the personality and
obsessions of the character at hand. Boyle’s deft style is especially pleasing
here, as he lets each of his main figures construct elaborate self-
justifications and go off on spirited rants. And though everyone gets a
chance to testify, almost nobody ends up looking good in this story. Give
Boyle credit here: he lets his characters make their best case, and they all
end up incriminating themselves. This style of writing, in which the explicit
and implicit meaning of the narrative are often strikingly divergent, requires
a virtuosic attentiveness to tone and nuance that few novelists could pull
off with such aplomb.

Perhaps the only thing missing here is architecture. If you are an admirer of
Frank Lloyd Wright, and want to get a sense of the man’s artistry and
vision, you are advised to find another book. Maybe Brendan Gill or Ada
Louise Huxtable’s accounts are a better starting point. Yet if you have a
hunch that behind every great man is a fascinating woman—or perhaps
three or four women—than this novel will give you plenty to consider.
The Women by T. Coraghessan Boyle
Contact Ted Gioia at
tedgioia@hotmail.com

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Selected Reviews
(2007-2014)
BY TED GIOIA

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