Reviewed by Marie Arana
Sunday, February 15, 2009
By T. Coraghessan Boyle
Viking. 451 pp. $27.95
Move over, Nora Roberts! With this potboiler about the love life of Frank Lloyd Wright, T.C. Boyle, one of America's most inventive writers, bursts feverishly into the realm of romance fiction. The Women is an altogether manic, occasionally baffling and yet strangely riveting novel. True readers of the genre, be warned: It's a romance only in spirit. Call it a thinking man's soap opera. As for the women, well . . . .
The fiery loves that populated the life of America's premier architect make excellent grist for an over-the-top melodrama. Wright's private life was shocking, lurid, the stuff of pulp fiction. For three decades and more, American tabloids thrived on appalling revelations about it. World readers gasped over the wicked details.
He had always been a flirt and womanizer. His first wife, Kitty Tobin, by whom he fathered six children, was tolerant enough of his passing infidelities. But as his fame burgeoned, Wright became more flamboyant, increasingly reckless. He rode through town in his flashy convertible, openly canoodling with his neighbor's wife. She was the lovely, strong-willed Mamah Cheney, and, before long, she was front-page news.
The scandal was so outrageous that the two lovers were forced to flee to Europe, leaving their spouses and families behind. On his return, a bit more than a year later, Wright began the construction of his empire's nerve center, Taliesin, and Mamah came to live with him there, in flagrante, to the distress of their neighbors. The affair came to a tragic end when Wright's manservant went on a rampage and murdered seven of Taliesin's inhabitants, bludgeoning them with an axe. Among the victims were Mamah and her two children. All this has been retold recently in Nancy Horan's popular novel Loving Frank, but the account is only one of six parts in Boyle's salacious and exhaustive chronicle.
The truth is that Wright went on to commit an abundance of peccadilloes. He took up with Maude Miriam Noel, a Memphis adventuress with a morphine habit, parading her about, to the horror of his ever-vigilant mother. Less than a year after he married Miriam, he began an affair with Olgivanna Milanoff, a former devotee of the eccentric and priapic Russian mystic Gurdjieff. When Wright brought Olgivanna to the highly disciplined -- some would say tyrannical -- Taliesin, faking her identity as a servant, his wife was already far away, bored with the country life. Nevertheless, Miriam mounted a very public and nasty long-distance campaign to smear her. But by then Olgivanna was pregnant with Wright's child. She eventually won out over Miriam and came to rule Taliesin every bit as despotically as her husband, earning the soubriquet "Dragon Lady."
Boyle tells all this in garish detail, luxuriating in the considerable opportunity for heated sex and operatic gush such a chronicle of human foibles might offer. ("And he, fully aroused, his face gone rubicund and his ears glistening like Christmas ornaments in the quavering light, breathed his answer against the soft heat of her lips.")
But as the novel unfolds, the quirky architecture of Boyle's book proves to be its undoing. Events proceed in reverse, so that a reader stumbles from last wife to first. Narrating the story is a fictional apprentice (Wright had many), a genial Japanese man named Tadashi Sato, whose introduction is palatable enough, but whose footnotes and asides become increasingly annoying and disruptive. Wright is Wrieto-San. And then there's a co-narrator named O'Flaherty-San. Why these buffers are necessary or why Boyle decided to employ them, we never know. What we do know is this: Every time the story begins to get some traction -- just as we're pulled toward the next juicy morsel -- we are reminded to look through a thoroughly trumped up lens.
Eventually, Boyle's structure reveals itself as a steady, efficient machine against the natural drama. How can there be any tension when you know how a story will end? Where is the plot when you find yourself moving backward? As they parade by in their tidy Japanese boxes, Wright's women turn out to be strikingly similar: They are conniving harridans with big scores to settle. And though it's impossible not to read on (so striking and wild is the true story), Wright, too, becomes something of a mask: a cruel, self-absorbed, oversexed genius. Even his famous edifices never quite come alive.
So much for the material. But, oh, the writing! It's the writing that pulls you through, and it's the writing that will reward you in the last scene of this altogether predictable and (sometimes deliciously) overwrought novel. Boyle is a marvel at descriptive prose. He has proved it again and again in a stream of books that includes Drop City and World's End. Through the congeries that makes up this maddening maze of a novel, you find yourself turning the page and hitting on something like this: "Outside, beyond the gray frame of the window, the weather was dreary, funereal clouds strung from the rooftops like laundry hung out to dry, and so cold even the dirty gray ratlike pigeons were huddled against it, dark motionless lines of frozen feathers and arrested beaks blighting the eaves as far as she could see down both sides of the block."
So you go on, from scene to scene, marveling at a turn of phrase or some well-articulated emotion. As with a fickle lover, it's the words that keep you there. ·
Marie Arana, a former editor of Book World, is author of "American Chica" and "Cellophane." Her most recent novel is "Lima Nights." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.