three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
By: 
T. C. Boyle
user_rating: 
0

A-The WomenT. C. Boyle has written many novels based on real-life figures, including The Inner Circle ( 3 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2004), featuring Alfred Kinsey, and The Road to Wellville (1993), about Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. World’s End won the PEN/Faulkner Award and Drop City ( 3.5 of 5 Stars May/June 2003) was a National Book Award finalist.

The Story: Was Frank Lloyd Wright a "wounded genius," or a "philanderer and sociopath who abused the trust of practically everyone he knew, especially the women?" Tadashi Sato, an apprentice architect at Taliesin, asks this question as he narrates Wright’s four major romances and unconventional life. The novel starts with the exotic Montenegrin Olgivanna Milanoff, Wright’s last wife. It then moves backward in time to his life with Southern belle and morphine addict Maud Miriam Noel; to the 1914 tragedy in Taliesin, where his lover and soul mate Mamah Cheney and her children were murdered; and finally, to Wright’s marriage to Kitty Tobin, his loyal first wife and the mother of six of his children. Against these changing relationships, Wright created his architectural masterpieces.
Viking. 451 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 0670020419

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"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. … The intersection of Wright’s public and private lives is Boyle’s interest." Carlo Wolff

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Boyle doesn’t pay much attention to the concentrated effort that Wright put into his work. It may be that in pursuing Wright’s emotional life, Boyle scants his intellect and artistic genius. But that seems deliberate: love, not architecture, is the focus here." Joanna Scott

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If Mamah is the book’s heroine, Miriam is its heavy. … The author handles the big themes—Wright the genius battling an uncomprehending, philistine world and Wright the man loving and loathing his women—with extraordinary brio." Dan Cryer

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Despite dozens of writers’ attempts to capture Wright’s story, it seems safe to say that none has rendered it with more crackling life than Mr. Boyle." Penelope Rowlands

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"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." Marie Arana

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 of 5 Stars
"Though at times amusing, this postmodern ploy [of the biased biographer] has grown stale. … For all their differences, Wright’s women … barely exist outside the gravitational force field of the great man." Glenn C. Altschuler

New York Times 0.5 of 5 Stars
"Having decided to take on this Wagnerian-size life, Mr. Boyle has responded not with the deflating humor and hyperventilated energy of his early work or the emotional insight of his more recent novels but instead with a small, cheesy paint-by-numbers soap opera that manages to be pallid and gratuitously garish at the same time." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

T. C. Boyle has written many biographical novels, but critics weren’t sure that this effort fully succeeds. All agreed that Boyle is a graceful stylist whose writing, noted the Washington Post, "will reward you in the last scene of this altogether predictable and (sometimes deliciously) overwrought novel." While mostly adhering to the facts, melodramatic it is. That didn’t seem to be the major problem, though. Many reviewers thought that the fictional narrator Tadashi Sato, writing a biography of his mentor with limited knowledge, was a curious, unnecessary device. Critics also faulted Boyle’s decision to tell the story backward. Finally, those perhaps hoping for a different book complained that Boyle fails to explore Wright’s intellectual genius. But "love, not architecture, is the focus here," noted the New York Times Book Review—which readers should know going in.

Recently Reviewed

Loving Frank | Nancy Horan (2007): When Mamah Borthwick Cheney’s husband commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design the couple’s home in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1903, Mamah and Frank began a scandalous, clandestine affair that rocked American society. But their romance, begun so idealistically, ended in tragedy. ( 4 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2007)

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. Imagine that you are Olga arriving at Taliesin for the first time, knowing everything you do about its previous two incarnations and the women who inspired them. What would you be feeling?

2. How does Boyle’s choice of narrator affect your reading of the novel?

3. Miriam’s first argument with Wright is over the fancy French meal she serves him. In what ways did his taste in food shape the major events of his life?

4. If Mamah hadn’t been murdered, might she and Wright have stayed happily together? What do you think of Ellen Key’s assertion that women have “the right to love in their own instinctual way”? (p. 385). Does this include adultery and abandoning her children?

5. Just before Miriam marries Wright, she reads her own translation of a Japanese poem: “The memories of long love,/gather like drifting snow . . . poignant as the Mandarin ducks/who float side by side in sleep” (p. 306). Mamah had translated a Goethe poem for Wright: “Call it happiness! . . . Heart! Love! God!/I have no name/For it! Feeling is everything!” (p. 352). What does each quote tell about the woman who chose it?

6. Do you think Wright ever found his soulmate?

7. Consider Wright’s flagrant solicitation of loans he never intended to repay. Does a visionary owe a greater obligation to his art or to the social contract?

8. What do you make of Wright’s demand for exemplary behavior—no drinking, carousing, or romantic entanglements outside marriage—from his apprentices?

9. Have you ever visited a Wright building? If so, describe the experience.

10. Does Boyle’s portrait of Wright accord with your own notions about the architect?

11. Do you read many novels about historical figures? What kind of entrée does fiction provide that mere fact cannot?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Penguin. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.