T.C. Boyle's latest novel is a wild and improvisational examination of Frank Lloyd Wright and the women he loved.
The word fugue has two meanings. It can signify a musical composition whose swirling variations on a theme create a whole more complex than its parts. Or it can refer to a pathological, stressful psychological state.
Published a year and a half after Nancy Horan’s “Loving Frank,” a well-researched but less animated reimagining of Wright’s affair with proto-feminist Mamah Borthwick Cheney, Boyle’s novel is both more ambitious and better written.
Like the Horan novel, “The Women” creates an unflattering view of Wright as a man consumed by ambition, vanity, and spectacularly undisciplined hormones.
But it also rounds him out, as it does the women in his life. These include Cheney, who was his longtime mistress, and his three wives: the underdrawn Kitty Tobin, the exotic Montenegrin Olgivanna Milanoff, and the exuberantly presented Maude Miriam Noel, a lapsed Southern belle who matched Wright in relentlessness and exceeded him in cruelty.
Each gets her own section, with Wright as the constant. A subtext to all, and functioning as an emotional corollary, is Wright’s work, spanning the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, various houses in California and in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park and, of course, Taliesin, the fabled Wisconsin redoubt Wright brought to life against vast societal odds and then lost to fire.
An original, Wright was indeed a visionary, and Boyle seems to enjoy exploring him from many angles, He had a mundane palate (a lapse which infuriated the socially pretentious Maude). He was blessed with unbridled energy. And above all, he achieved a type of symbiosis with his projects, a symbiosis that could shade into obsessiveness.
And that obsessiveness was often indistinguishable from egotism. Boyle imagines Kitty catching a glimpse of this while sitting in the living room of the Oak Park home Wright designed for Mamah and her husband Edwin, before persuading Mamah to leave Edwin for him. “Kitty was seated on the familiar hard-backed sofa before the Roman brick fireplace in the living room of the house that was so familiar it might have been her own, but of course it wasn’t. It was Mamah’s. And Edwin’s. Or perhaps she should call it Frank’s, since all his interiors reflected one another as if he were simultaneously living in a hundred rooms, rooms scattered across the countryside but somehow, in the architecture of his mind, continuous.”
“Architecture of his mind” – a felicitous phrase indeed. The book bursts with those and with details that give it the patina of its times. These include the use of the term “pravaz” to signify Maude’s 19th-century drug-injection apparatus (she was a morphine addict) and the fantasy roiling in Kitty’s jealous head as she imagines Frank and Mamah in Germany, where they had absconded, leaving both of their families for the sake of the free love Mamah so strenuously advocated. “She had a fleeting vision of him bent over a plate of dumplings in some Prussian palace with bear rugs on the floors and stags’ heads arrayed over the fireplace, Mamah sipping champagne from a crystal flute and throwing her chin back to laugh her rippling carefree laugh that was calculated to freeze every woman to the core and make every man turn his head.”
Even though he portrays Kitty primarily as a foil to Wright’s other women, Boyle manages to make her credible. One of the strengths of this book is Boyle’s even-handedness when it comes to gender. Neither Wright nor his loves get short shrift psychologically, and the women are particularly well fleshed out, especially the mercurial, gaudy Maude. Wright’s attraction to her is palpable, and so is Boyle’s fascination.
The novel is narrated by fictional Tadashi Sato, a singularly sensitive apprentice of Wright’s in the architect’s later years. If, at times, it’s hard to recall who’s telling the story, it’s even harder to tear oneself away from it. Boyle’s style, alternately ornate and driven, is perfectly suited to his subject, a man whose self-absorption sucked up everyone in his path, whether they were objects of desire or marks to be fleeced.
Shifting across time and place, Boyle masterly braids the stories of the main characters to create a weird, eccentric, and provocative family portrait. Wright, after all, was a home builder – and yet also a home wrecker. The intersection of Wright’s public and private lives is Boyle’s interest.
The book ends with a compelling portrayal of Julian Carleton, the Barbadian cook who triggered the tragedy that destroyed the original Taliesin. In his depiction of this horrific event, Boyle proves he is as expert at delineating evil as he is at celebrating creativity.
Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland.