‘The Women’ by T. C. Boyle

‘Historical fiction’ isn’t all tight bodices, hooped skirts and drawing-room drama. In fact, The Women by T. C. Boyle is all about the sharp, clean lines of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s unparalleled work and the messy, scandalous affairs he conducted with the women in his life.

Boyle tells the story of Frank Lloyd Wright through the eyes of a fictional Japanese apprentice. Interestingly, the story is narrated in reverse chronological order, starting with Wright’s last great love, the Montenegrin beauty Olgivanna Milanoff; then examining the messy but passionate affair with Southern belle Maude Miriam Noel; moving on to the tragic Mamah Cheney, whose story is intertwined with that of Wright’s first wife, Kitty Tobin, who bore him six children.

L-R: Kitty, Mamah, Miriam, Olga

Telling the story in reverse is a masterstroke. Boyle finishes the story with the catastrophic fire and murder of Mamah and six others at Taliesin, Wright’s home in Wisconsin. The final chapters are chilling – the part of the murderer is told in a way that is both distant, calculating but personal. It’s exceptional story-telling, particularly when you close the book and consider that Wright survived, went on working and later became involved with Miriam and Olgivanna.

On meeting Olgivanna:

“He needed – complication. Love, yes. Sex, of course. But something more than that, something fraught and embattled, a relation to make the juices flow in every sense.”

The Women is an immense book in so many ways. Not only is it a remarkably solid read (only 450 pages but there’s no white space and the print is small) but Boyle’s writing style is detail-rich, with historical facts woven in seamlessly to the narrative. In fact, the Japanese narrator’s voice is so convincing (and complete with footnotes that give him authenticity), that it is hard to separate fact from fiction. The book has been criticised for the gimmicky and divisive use of a fictitious narrator. I disagree – I think it is imaginative, an interesting link to the huge influence Japanese art and architecture had on Wright’s work. It was also a gentle reminder for the reader that novels based on factual events rely on some imagined elements – dialogue for instance.

The story left me with two clear impressions of Wright (admittedly these impressions were first planted when I read Nancy Horan’s wonderful Loving Frank). The first is that whilst I greatly admire Wright’s work, I don’t think he was a very nice man. ‘Nice’ is a piss-weak description but I was trying to avoid saying he was egotistical, temperamental, selfish and demanding –

“….famous for … his temper, especially if he felt he wasn’t getting the respect — adulation, worship even — he felt he deserved.”

Secondly was Wright’s attitude toward money. How he supported his children, his wives, his passion for Japanese art and his projects is somewhat of a mystery. Needless to say the wives had numerous uncomfortable moments at the grocery store when they added to their large, outstanding bills.

“I was the same old conundrum: how to build what he saw in his mind’s eye, how to raise a thing of beauty from the earth so that people would look at it and marvel for a century to come, without first raising the money to see it fruition.”

One aspect of Boyle’s writing that I particularly enjoyed was his use of ‘difficult’ words. Honestly, it’s rare that I reach for the dictionary when I’m reading. That’s not to say that I have a fabulous command of the English language. No, it’s merely a reflection of the fact that most authors don’t use ‘difficult’ or unusual words very often. Some examples of words that cropped up in The Women – oleaginous, emblematic, lucubrate, bellicosity, vituperative. And these –

“… my inamorata having left me for a Caucasian who played trombone….”

“She closed her eyes for the public kiss, the stamp and seal and imprimature of her new master….”

“He seemed to wince at the sobriquet—Daddy Frank, Daddy….”

“A framed oil painting—a bucolic lucrastine scene in atrocious taste….”

“… the house was a testament to his parvenu yearnings….”

When was the last time you used oleaginous in a sentence?!

My only criticism of this book is the very few references to Wright’s work. Yes, it’s called The Women not The Buildings (!), but his genius was in his work and as such provides an important point of reference. The exception is Taliesin. So much of The Women is rooted in Wright’s home in Wisconsin, Taliesin. I really, really hope I get the opportunity to see it one day.

Apparently Frank (I’m on first name basis here) preferred plain food – ‘biscuits and gravy’ (I looked for a recipe but all the pictures looked revolting – I’m sure it’s one of those dishes that simply doesn’t photograph well), meat, fried potatoes, oatmeal and fresh fruit and vegetables. Some of the women in his life influenced the food served – during his time with Mamah they had a cook from the Bahamas who served up lots of spicy (and tasty sounding) dishes. Miriam favoured French cuisine (Frank abhorred it) and Olgivanna cooked stews and cakes with a Slavic flavour. I also can’t ignore the Japanese influences in Franks life. However, tackle The Women with a basic,  simple potato hash – I picked it partly because I have fond memories of both my grandma and my mum making ‘potato cakes’ and partly because salt and fried potato. Say no more.

4/5 Boyle’s writing is truly imaginative and on that basis alone, worth the read. However, I do wonder if much of my enjoyment of this book was because I’m extremely interested in the subject matter. I’d be interested to know how readers, who aren’t interested in Wright or architecture, found the book.

7 responses

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  2. I just finished TC Boyles, San Miguel, another fictionalised account of historical people and place. While I think Boyle uses language beautifully (despite the odd overblown word) I am not sure I liked the story enough to give The Women a try

    • I certainly think Boyle is one of those authors that you wouldn’t read back-to-back books from. I found the book quite demanding – couldn’t pick it up and put it down as I often do with novels. I might try more from Boyle – some of his earlier books (especially the one about the Kellogg family) get great reviews. I’ll look forward to reading your take on San Miguel.

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