Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Women, by T. C. Boyle

The Women, by T.C. Boyle, is a novel that depicts the relationships the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright had with four women in his life. Boyle creates a narrator for this saga, one Sato Tadashi, a young man from Japan who reveres the famous architect and has come to Wisconsin to be one of Wright's apprentices at Taliesin.

Even though this is a novel, and Tadashi is an invented character, almost all the events depicted in this book are known to be true. I found Boyle's way of expanding on these facts to be fascinating, and I also really liked Tadashi. He is an excellent vehicle to speak for the apprentices, who paid tuition to Wright so that they could work their backsides off, spending more time at their farm chores than at their drawing boards. Tadashi also has the bad luck of being at Taliesin during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and so spends WWII in an internment camp. I kept forgetting that Tadashi was a fictional man, Boyle's deft depiction of how these obscure apprentices sacrificed years of their lives to be near greatness, and also a reminder of the prejudices of the times.

Boyle chooses to introduce us to these women in reverse order, going back in time, since Tadashi arrives in the 1930s in time to meet Wrieto-San's last wife. However, I will mention them in chronological order, as is my wont:

Wright's first wife was Catherine "Kitty" Tobin, just seventeen years old when she married him in 1899. They had six children. Boyle does not fill in many details of this relationship for us, since Kitty must have had her hands full with children and housework, while Frank was out hustling commissions to support his large family. The one common thread stitched into all these stories is that Frank doesn't pay his bills. Kitty is the one who is left to feel uncomfortable everytime she gets groceries, being constantly reminded of their ever-growing debt. Frank is oblivious to these--little troubles, and always seems to have everything he wants.

Speaking of that, it is not long before Frank decides that he wants to be married to the wife of one of his clients. While designing a house for Edwin Cheney, he runs off to Europe with Edwin's wife, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. They both abandon their spouses and children in an act that is seen as immoral and selfish, and the scandal that follows almost ruins Frank's career. Kitty doesn't even know of this until the reporters come for her statement. This was Frank at his cruelest.

Frank and Mamah lived together without the benefit of marriage, and for this they were generally shunned, especially Mamah. (Frank's women always suffered.) It was somewhat ironic that Mamah was very much interested in the feminist movement and working on a translation of a feminist writer's work while living at Taliesin, the home Frank built for the two of them, when she was tragically murdered by a servant named Julian Carlton. ( Taliesin murders ) Seven people were murdered that day, including Mamah's visiting children, who were 12 and 9 years old. I found myself worrying about the fate of the murderer's young wife Gertrude, who was certainly not involved. The motive is still unknown, but Boyle imagines a very likely one.

Soon after Mamah's shocking death, while Frank is still mourning and vulnerable, a woman named Maude "Miriam" Noel insinuates her way into his life, and this is the start of a very bad time; Miriam is portrayed as the worst kind of opportunist, and she was definitely addicted to morphine. This marriage is over within a year, and while Frank is separated from Miriam, he meets Olga Lazovich Hinzenburg, or Olgivanna for--short, who will be his last wife.

His early days with Olgivanna are marred by Miriam. The way she torments, harasses, and actually stalks Frank and Olgivanna, even after being offered a very reasonable divorce settlement, would probably land Miriam in jail today, or at least rehab. Actually, my only real criticism of this novel is that there's too much Miriam in it, even though I realize that Frank's battle with her lasted a long time, possibly three times longer than their short marriage. In short, it was incredibly ugly and tedious.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel very much, and can see why Boyle decided to portray Wright's wives in reverse order, since it made for a more climatic ending than the other way around. How Frank Lloyd Wright managed to create such marvelous work with all this going on in the background is a mystery.


TLP said...

Sounds fascinating indeed!

Before your Dad and I went to see Fallingwater, Kentuck Knob, and all those houses Wright did in Oak Park, etc., I decided to read about FLW. He was a real jerk!

But of course, I want to read that book. You make everything sound interesting.

Tom & Icy said...

That was a fantastic review. It does make one wonder about some people's achievements in spite of great problems, but maybe their job or creativeness was a form of escape and diversion from their problems just like you mentioned Frank not worrying about bills. It seems a lot of great men just put problems out of their minds and concentrate on other things.

Doug said...

His son, FLW, Jr. was an architect who built some famous houses around LA. Hopefully a nicer guy. Cruelty can skip generations. I agree with Icy's review of your review.

I'm not sure about Tadasho being interned. I had the impression they only interned permanent residents and only those near the west coast.

actonbell said...

Mom, someday I really must see these structures. I love that kind of touring:)
Thank you, Tom. And yes, I agree that it seems that some people can just deny that certain parts of their lives are happening. Oy.

Doug, it seems that two of his sons turned into good architects, and I take it that no news is good news; if we haven't read about his sons' personal lives in the papers, then they are probably nicer, more stable people.

And I don't know about the accuracy of Tadasho's internment, either--it does seem more likely that he would have been deported than detained.

Jocelyn said...

Ah, you have reminded me of this book (some months ago, somewhere, I encountered a mention of it and thought, "Hmmm....could be good..."

Now I MUST read it.