The Women

Frank Lloyd Wright, visionary architect and center of what was tantamount to a cult, has already been the subject of a novel in the last couple of years (Loving Frank by Nancy Horan). And here he is again, this time taking his place in T. C. Boyle’s gallery of wickedly drawn American gurus: John Harvey Kellogg (The Road to Wellville), Alfred C. Kinsey (The Inner Circle), and the fictional Norm Spender (Drop City). A canny friend to humanity and driven presenter of his own designs as nature’s, Wright is just the man for a writer possessing a pen as adept as Boyle’s in portraying power games and nature’s dark side — human and otherwise.

In his own and in his faithful acolytes’ estimation, Wright was the 20th century’s greatest architect, a genius and seer whose designs promised liberation from the stultification of modern industrial society and the straitjacket that was its architecture. He was also an incorrigible philanderer. His three marriages and untold number of affairs included a pivotal liaison with the wife of a man for whom he had designed a house. This was Mamah Cheney, a soulful advocate of women’s rights and free love, for whom Wright eventually left his first wife and six children in 1909. (Mamah left not only her husband but also two children.) The scandal threatened to end Wright’s career, and he hightailed it to Europe, spending some of his time there with Mamah. Eventually, he returned to the U.S. and in 1911 built Taliesin in Wisconsin, a house conforming to his idea that the good life rose out of the organic unity of house, earth, and light. Mamah joined him; but three years later, she and her visiting children and four other people were murdered by a crazed servant who then set fire to the house.

It is toward this tragic event that the book travels, though it does so backward through the minds of its major characters: the four central women, an apprentice, the mad servant, and Wright, himself. Though we begin with Wright’s first meeting Olga, the woman who would eventually become his third wife, the book really explodes into color when it enters the nutsy inner life of Miriam, his second wife, who has left him but is not at all prepared to divorce him. “Yes,” she reflects, “she’d left him. Of course she had. Anyone would have…. He was impossible. The single most infuriating being she’d ever met, what with his God complex and his perfectionism, fussing over every last detail as if the world depended on it, his snoring, his musical evenings, the utter soul-crushing desolation of rural Wisconsin where he all but kept her a prisoner and every overfed housewife and goggling rube staring at her as it she had the letter A sewed to the front of her dress. Of course she left him. But that didn’t mean she didn’t love him still.”

Miriam is the helpmeet from hell who entered Wright’s life after Mamah’s death. Reading about the tragedy in the newspaper, she wrote to him offering sympathy and understanding, appealing to what we may call Wright’s higher nature: his sense of his own beleaguered genius, of being beset by littleness, by clients balking at cost overruns, by bill collectors and lawyers hounding him with their petty demands, by the press dragging his reputation through the mud, by “the deep-dwelling ignorance of his countrymen.”

Boyle clearly relishes the spectacle of Wright’s flattered vanity, as well as his swagger and panache: the great man “strutting up and down as if he owned every square inch of every place he stepped into,” or “prancing?cane twirling?the tails of his cape flapping in the brisk breeze he generated all on his own.” The genius architect is shown throughout to be self-centered, controlling, and slippery in matters of money (“Frank…considered an invoice a kind of memorial only”). But, somehow, the book belongs to Miriam, if only because her own megalomania is so affronted by Wright’s, and its explosions show Boyle at his pyrotechnical best. The reader, at least the uncharitable one, simply revels in the coruscating rants the author has cooked up for her. Her soul is a toxic gallimaufry of emotions, vanity, resentment, acquisitiveness, neediness, vengefulness, and blistering jealousy. Only the shots of morphine to which she is addicted reduce her boiling state to a simmer, and that not for long.

Olga, Mamah, and Kitty, Wright’s first wife, are far more sympathetic and, indeed, poignantly drawn characters, though again, Boyle is in his element, his prose all aflame, in representing their thoughts when there are overwrought — which is, to be sure, given their circumstances, a good deal of the time. It is they, in their self-sacrifice and thralldom to Wright’s magnetism, who throw into relief the man’s overweening self-regard, his presumption in taking to himself every good thing, his forgiving himself for his trespasses.

One must mention here that the story’s way of getting itself told is eccentric. In an introduction, purportedly written by a supposed Japanese architect and former Wright apprentice, Tadashi Sato, we learn that the narrative to follow has been written by him and Seamus O’Flaherty, his Irish-American grandson-in-law, who has also translated the text. It is a structural accouterment that never makes sense. Coming to Taliesin in 1932, well into Wright’s last marriage, Tadashi — to say nothing of his young relation — could not know of the dialogue, never mind the inner thoughts, he presents with such verisimilitude. And yet, in a further incongruity, footnotes, of which there are many, quiz and gloss the text as if it were the historical record. In the end, however, The Women is so thoroughly enjoyable that the annoyance — rather like the leaks that so bedeviled Frank Lloyd Wright’s own constructions — is simply a detail.

Also of Interest: Don’t miss Ward Sutton’s cartoon review of The Women, “Daddy Frank and the Curse of Sex.”