Genius, conventional wisdom holds, exonerates those who have it for almost all their other flaws. This was certainly the case for Frank Lloyd Wright, who flouted the law countless times during his three marriages, numerous affairs, and financial troubles.
Wright’s tempestuous relationship with fidelity is the subject of The Women, a new novel by T.C. Boyle. Reveling in the soap opera that was Wright’s love life, Boyle constructs perhaps the most beautifully written potboiler of all time, full of sex, revenge, and magnificent turns of phrase. However, the plot is the stuff of melodrama, something even the most talented writer can’t turn into literary gold.
The story unfolds in reverse, beginning with Wright’s courtship of his third wife, the already-married Montenegrin dancer Olgivanna Milanoff. Wright, currently married to the opium-addicted Southern belle Maude Miriam Noel, is nonplussed by Olgivanna’s potential unavailability and sweeps her and her daughter off to Taliesin, his compound in Wisconsin. Installing Olgivanna as his “housekeeper,” Wright impregnates her, bringing down the wrath of Miriam and keeping the whole country entertained with shocking newspaper accounts of “Wright’s Love Child.”
Boyle soon reveals that Wright is no stranger to scandal, having seduced seemingly every female in the Upper Midwest. As the novel progresses backwards in time, we meet Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of one of Wright’s neighbors and his most famous paramour. Along with her children, she is brutally murdered by Wright’s crazed manservant while residing at Taliesin. Cheney and Wright’s affair was more fully fleshed out by Nancy Horan in last year’s Loving Frank, possibly explaining why Boyle devotes relatively little space to the most infamous of Wright’s dalliances.
Finally, Boyle introduces Kitty Tobin, the Wright’s first long-suffering wife and mother of six of his children. Kitty rates only a few paragraphs, mainly to be “furious as ever, rattling things in the kitchen,” and to grant Wright a long-awaited divorce. This doesn’t seem to do her justice; one has to wonder what qualities the woman who had the longest continuous relationship with Wright possessed. She must have been extremely emotional resilient, for one thing, to put up with all of Wright’s infidelities.
Miriam is the best drawn of Boyle’s characters, sad and full of rage after Wright betrays her, but sensual and seductive when they first meet. The run-on sentences of her opium-addled state are among the most effective in the novel:
She’d been eating a late lunch or early dinner or whatever you wanted to call it when Leora phoned and she’d been out earlier for a walk in the frozen air hoping the exercise would clear her head, but as it happened she felt utterly drained when she got back to the hotel and laid her cheek down on the pillow for a nap that must have stretched on for hours.
Boyle transfers Miriam’s discomfort and anxiety to the reader in these passages; it is impossible not to share her unease.
The novel is ostensibly narrated by Tadashi Sato, an apprentice to Wright invented by Boyle. While Tadashi’s interventions are an efficient way of discussing Wright’s long-standing fascination with Japanese culture, he seems mostly unnecessary, if not distracting. Footnotes inserted into the narrative act like “fun facts” about Wright and his surroundings. Wright’s affinity for bean paste is interesting, yes, but we certainly don’t need an entire excursus on the different types of dumplings.
To make matters worse, Tadashi’s recollections are supposedly translated by his son-in-law, someone named O’Flaherty. Instead of only one obnoxiously opinionated narrator, we get two. Perhaps Boyle was attempting to alert the reader to the unreliability of his work, that it is “only a novel,” but Tadashi and O’Flaherty’s interventions continually break the illusion.
In the end, however, all is saved by Boyle’s dexterity with words. He has a beautiful eye for detail, describing even the paper on which Miriam writes her threatening letters to Wright. Scenes are set with great skill, with both natural occurrences and buildings described with a striking amount of tenderness:
The clouds were elongated, running with the winds in threads and stripes, and on the horizon was the first shock of lightening.
While Wright would probably not approve of Boyle’s fictionalizing his romances, one can imagine that he would at least appreciate the artistry of Boyle’s words.