Feb/Mar 2009

The Wright Thing

Sarah L. Courteau


T. C. Boyle is getting in touch with his feminine side. His last novel, Talk Talk (2006), was his first to feature a woman in a leading role. The Women, which clearly announces his intention to again focus on the fairer sex, is a lushly complex saga of the wives and lovers who trailed, like geese flying in formation, behind Frank Lloyd Wright.

The fabled architect makes a tempting subject for fiction. Early last century, when the long nose of the law reached into people’s bedrooms, his personal life regularly made headlines. In the 2007 novel Loving Frank, Nancy Horan imagined the affair between Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a client, as a rather too high-minded romance. Though Boyle hews to roughly the same set of facts, his profoundly flawed characters are convincing—and a lot more fun to read about. The Women purports to be narrated by a Japanese architect apprenticed to Wright before World War II, but we’re much more mindful of Boyle’s own ferocious research and fervid imagination as we witness the emergence of an American icon.

Boyle’s engrossing narrative begins with the woman who became Wright’s third wife and remained with him until his death in 1959, a young Montenegrin dancer named Olgivanna Milanoff. Boyle then works backward in time, introducing us in turn to Wright’s estranged second wife, Maude Miriam Noel; Mamah Cheney, the mistress who preceded Miriam and was brutally murdered; and Wright’s first wife, Catherine “Kitty” Tobin. As each woman’s story unfolds, we’re reminded of the price of greatness: Someone has to keep the home fires burning (and the pots scrubbed and the garden hoed). Muses are easier to find, it seems, than good kitchen help and someone who gets along with Mother.

The curtain rises on Wright wooing Olgivanna after meeting her at a dance performance in Chicago; he’s looking to replace Miriam, a Scarlett O’Hara–tinged schemer with a drug habit. Quickly enough, Olgivanna finds herself pregnant and peeling potatoes at Taliesin, Wright’s legendary Wisconsin estate, where she aches for nothing more than a little domestic tranquility. But Wright is waging battle with Miriam, who has emerged from her stupor to paint herself the wronged woman. When she isn’t stalking her husband and Olgivanna, she’s giving tearful press conferences and hounding the couple with legal charges.

Then Miriam’s own story begins: As a down-on-her-luck but glamorous sculptor, she swooped in to comfort Wright after the murder of his beloved Mamah and for a time enjoyed his lustful affections. Mamah is a less full-fledged character. She’s a budding feminist who comes off, intriguingly, as a kook, but her tale is overshadowed by the grim ending we know is coming and by Boyle’s arresting decision to enter the mind of her killer, a servant at Taliesin. Kitty, who bore Wright six children before he left her, gets little more than a cameo in Mamah’s grand romance as the dumped wife who doesn’t know how to make a dignified exit.

Wright himself—brilliant, tireless, lousy with money, a bit of an emotional coward, a man who takes pains to arrange the furniture to his liking when he enters a room but finds fatherhood a chore—anchors each of these tales. But he is absent as well. The master must not be disturbed in his studio (or at the work site or in the arms of another woman). He takes the Olympian view of those who would pin him down, as when Chicago society shuns him after he deserts Kitty: “How did they expect him to live, these moral paragons trapped in their own miserable little lives and marriages as dead and loveless as the rugs on the floors of the insipid boxes they called home?” Boyle sometimes seems reluctant to judge Wright, but his focus on disordered domestic arrangements rather than architecture does diminish the Great Man.

Miriam, at first blush merely the deranged spoiler of Wright and Olgivanna’s happiness, becomes the passionate center of the book as she strives to put her name on the marquee of a drama that already has a star. After suffering a spate of bad publicity while she’s shacked up with Frank, she writes in an ill-advised letter, stolen and made public in a newspaper, “Do not pity me. I am no victim of unrequited love. Well might any woman proudly stand in my place and count the cost as nothing.” It’s a shame Boyle doesn’t permit Wright’s first wife, the one with diaper duty who doesn’t have time to do intellectual loop-de-loops with her husband, the same platform.

Boyle lives in the hundred-year-old George C. Stewart house, the first of Wright’s California designs, and perhaps he felt peculiarly qualified to construct for Wright a house of fiction. But good as his book is, it suffers from a glaring structural flaw. Boyle frames The Women as a collaboration between Wright’s former apprentice Tadashi Sato and the man’s American grandson-in-law. Sato pens “introductions” to each of the book’s sections—replete with references to Wright as “Wrieto-San”—and peppers the text with footnotes about his young collaborator’s word choices (there’s a cute riff on fishy, for instance). The conceit is preposterous, not least because the focus of a devoted architectural draftsman surely wouldn’t be the inner lives of his master’s women.

Boyle has amassed his own little shelf at the local library; The Women is his twelfth novel, along with several story collections. His realistic characters are clothed in prose so assured you want to bet money on it. But a fondness for narrative showmanship has undermined many of his recent novels—he seems to have a nearly pathological aversion to straight storytelling and a weakness for conceits that are too clever by half. It’s time to wonder whether he’s doomed to produce one book after another about which we say, “Good, but . . .” While Boyle is studying up on women, he ought to consider Coco Chanel, at least for her advice on accessorizing: Remove one thing before leaving the house.

Sarah L. Courteau is the literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly.

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