Frank Lloyd Wright was a world-renown architect who designed homes whose names have entered the American lexicon: Taliesen, Fallingwater, Graycliff, Butterfly Woods, the very house that author T. C. Boyle
and his family have lovingly restored and lived in the past 16 years. Pretty to look at, they stretched the boundaries of house design with fully-utilized open spaces, houses that blended into rather than intruded upon their surroundings. But, they were not always what they seemed. Beneath the bold new façades were poor construction techniques that, having not caught up to Wright's concepts, often led to leaky roofs and windows and bad wiring. So it was with Wright whose personal life defied the conventional order. The outsider's view was different from the reality.
T. C. Boyle reincarnates Wright in this richly imagined novel, The Women. Completed in 2007, its publication was delayed so as not to compete with Nancy Horan's Loving Frank, which concentrates on Wright's relationship with Martha Cheney, and then the 2008 Presidential election. Ironically, the delays allowed the novel's publication to coincide with the centenary of the home where Boyle lives. The story is told by Tadashi Sato, an apprentice to Wright. Yet another layer in this beautifully intricate novel is our knowledge that Sato's story has been "translated" by his grandson-in-law, Seamus O'Flaherty. Written and translated 47 years after Sato's arrival at Taliesen, the story is told in three parts. It begins at the end with Wright's last wife and works backward to his first wife. Sato provides an introduction to each section along with the occasional footnote which supplements the text and places certain facts into context. The conceit that one is reading a well-researched biographical memoir is carried out consistently.
Four women are featured. Catherine Tobin Wright (Kitty, 1871 – 1959) was his first wife. She bore him 6 children. Martha (Mameh, 1869 – 1914) Borthwick Cheney was his lover while still married to Kitty. Maude Miriam Noel (1869 – 1930) was first his lover and then his second wife for one year, 1923 – 24. During this brief marriage he met Olgivanna Lazovich Hinzenburg (Olga, 1898 – 1985), a dancer with the Petrograd Ballet. She was his third and final wife. Each woman is a fully realized character, seen through the lenses of various characters.
The writing is beautiful and precise, although sentences taken out of context seem over wrought from time to time. But, that very individual, isolated weakness creates a powerful, yet ethereal whole that works to perfection. Who but Boyle could describe a woman's double chins as "the chins encapsulating one another like the rings of a tree"? This same woman knew Wright's name: "It exploded like an artillery shell in the depths of her eyes, drew her mouth down till it was closed up like a lockbox." As the narrator drives up the hill to Taliesen, "the gravel suddenly deepened into a kind of lithic sludge and the wheels vacillated…." Then, there is Alvy, who had "the dewlaps of an old woman who sits in a corner all day sopping up gravy with a crust of bread…." A carefully chosen phrase or word focuses the reader on Wright's problems in 1932. Nearly broken financially (a constant problem with the real Wright), his work is seen as "derrière-garde in the face of changing fashion." Even Sato feels that O'Flaherty's translation may be a bit overdone, as in this example where "she missed him with an ache that echoed inside her like a cry of despair from the carved-out trunk of a withered tree." Yet, it all works to great advantage.
Though he seems to be such a 20th Century man, Wright was firmly rooted in the 19th, believing in the primacy of a man and his right to do much as he wished regardless of what others thought. Born in 1867, he flouted social mores, took lovers, divorced or tried to, and was perpetually broke. Taliesen burned the first time in 1914 when his lover Mameh, her two children and 4 others were murdered at the house. Just as the house rose again from the flames and was burned and rose again, Wright crashed and rose more times that one can count from the ashes of financial ruin, personal turmoil, and professional death. For example, he was arrested and jailed for violation of the Mann Act, but the charges were later dropped. He designed more than 1,000 structures. Over 500 of them remain
. Many architects practicing today still view themselves as his disciples 40 years after his death on April 9, 1959.
Read a brief sketch of Wright's life for context then reserve some time and read this literate evocation of his relationship to those he loved. Note the brilliant way in which Boyle weaves fact and fiction to bring Wright and the women vibrantly alive. Reserve the time because you truly will not want to put this book down.