After writing novels about the lives of two other great American iconscereal entrepreneur John Harvey Kellogg in The Road to Wellville (1993) and sex guru Alfred C. Kinsey in The Inner Circle (2004)T. Coraghessan Boyle takes on the personal life of architectural giant Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) in The Women. Boyle, known for his entertaining style and quirky, dark humor, has also authored nine other novels plus eight collections of short stories. The Women might have posed Boyle’s biggest challenges and may be his greatest achievement so far. While offering Boyle’s usual attractions, The Women encompasses much moredeepened character studies, an excursion into tragedy, challenging questions about relationships between men and women, and superb narrative structuring for maximum effect.
Boyle structures The Women as imaginatively and daringly as Wright designed such creations as the gravity-defying Fallingwater or the circular Guggenheim Museum. He treats, in reverse chronological order, four women with whom Wright cohabited: Part 1 is titled “Olgivanna,” part 2,“Miriam,” and part 3, “Mamah.” Significantly, Wright’s first and least interesting wife, Kitty, does not get a full portion of the novel devoted to her. A conventional suburban housewife and mother of six who was only a teenager when they married, Kitty figures prominently only early in “Mamah.” The novel’s structure places Miriam, the most volatile and interesting of the women, at its center: She appears in every section, especially parts 1 and 2, and dominates the novel as much as does Wright himself. Finally, the structure allows the novel to end on a tragic climax, the grisly murder of seven people (including Mamah and her two children) and the burning of Wright’s home, Taliesin. Boyle imparts an operatic level of drama and tragedy to this event that was popularly considered at the time to be a judgment on Wright, his late mistress, and their immoral lifestyle.
The narrative structure is also significant for what it leaves out: any focus on Wright’s professional life as an architect. The Women is not a Künstlerroman, or the story of an artist’s development. This type of information can be found in biographies of Wright. Although the novel necessarily refers to Wright’s projects, his professional travels, and the always precarious business side of his operations, it does not provide much analysis of his architectural challenges and plans, his creative process, or his aesthetic philosophies. Instead, it focuses on Wright’s often chaotic relationships with women and the turmoil of his personal life, which might have made the peace and calm of his studio seem like a refuge.
A secondary focus of the novel is Wright’s relationships with his workmen and apprentices. Boyle portrays Wright as demonstrating a surprising respect for the skilled workmen on his projects, especially the stonemasons and carpenters, alongside whom he labors. The master carpenter Billy Weston becomes his close friend and the caretaker of Taliesin, Wright’s landmark Wisconsin homeplace, which is twice burnt and rebuilt. Wright also forms lasting friendships with some of his apprentices, although he and Olgivanna generally treat them as though they were sources of slave labor. (The apprentices have to pay Wright tuition for the privilege of working for him.)
Of particular interest is the apprentice Tadashi Sato, a well-educated young Japanese man in the wilds of Wisconsin, who is presented as the author of the novel. Sato writes in 1979, looking back on Wright’s life from the perspective of his own old age. He opens each section of the narrative with a chapter relating his experiences at Taliesin. This fictional author requires some suspension of disbelief, since it is not obvious how Sato can know anything about the motivations, thoughts, conversations, and love lives of Wright and the four women. Sato never sees three of the women, and by the time he appears at Taliesin in the fall of 1932, Olgivanna has changed so much from her younger self that she has acquired the nickname Dragon Lady.
One could pose much the same question about any author who purports to capture or reflect real people in a fictional novel, including Boyle himself. Sato is a convenient literary device: Although the novel is based on carefully researched factual information, all interpretations, fabrications, and even errors of fact can be attributed to Sato’s imagination, as can the opinionated footnotes that appear throughout the text. To supplement Sato, who seems to speak better American English than the native-born...
(The entire section is 1915 words.)