The Women by T C Boyle

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The Women by T C Boyle

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Eileen Shaw
Reviewed by Eileen Shaw
Summary: Set in America's past and covering the events of Frank Lloyd Wright's life, mostly through his relationships with wives and lovers, this novel has a somewhat hollow centre where the man, the architect and the psychology should be. Nevertheless, it's an excellent read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: March 2009
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing plc
ISBN: 978-0747597582

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An Oprah Tantalizing Beach Read 2009

In the early part of the twentieth century the architect Frank Lloyd Wright lived in a backwater of rural Wisconsin. Taliesin, his home and studio, was to become famous for all that went on there rather than the designs produced and The Women is the story, not so much of Wright himself, but of the women - the wives and mistresses - who fell under his spell.

You might find yourself warming only selectively to some of the characters. Frank Lloyd Wright was a larger than life figure whose ventures and misadventures are followed with dedicated accuracy in this novel. Boyle has chosen to move the novel backwards in time and ends with the most shocking and eviscerating event of his colourful and controversial existence, even though it happened quite early in his career. We start the novel with the one wife who outlived him, the third wife, the exotic and beautiful Olgivanna, who was plagued by the hysterical disruptions of his second wife, Miriam.

Miriam is a gift to any novelist – she is so off the wall one can see the footprints ending where she jumped. Miriam is a driven, egotistical, venial, jealous, vengeful, screaming shrew of a woman. Even so, one must say, Frank played into her hands. When his lover Mamah Borthwick was killed by a servant whom she had reprimanded for beating his wife, Miriam wrote to Frank in sympathy, and from the moment he responded one sensed him falling into the carefully constructed web of her creation. Miriam had invented a rich and cultured persona for herself, a counterpart to the self-made man that Lloyd Wright himself constructed and in Miriam he seemed to have met his match.

In concentrating on the women in his life, and indeed, because of the novel's narration by an acolyte, a fictional young Japanese man who joined his stable of young architects, Lloyd Wright remains at one remove. The narrator admits to not knowing everything, and though it would be unfair to see this as a cop-out, it does set up a doubt in the reader that enough veracity can exist in his narration. This is partly compounded by the refusal of Boyle to take the opportunity of seeing events from Frank's point of view. He is, in some respects, the spectre at his own feast.

There are certain traits to recognise in Frank's character – the love-hate relationship with publicity, the tendency to run when challenged, and the capacity to wait for the hell he has found himself in to dissipate and the good times to return once again. We are given a sense of the man's charismatic effect, his ebullience, his love of music, his social charm and his capacity to talk hind-parts off of a pasture full of donkeys. We also get a certain amount of calculated manipulation, especially of his stable of put upon apprentice architects, who often ended up peeling potatoes or chopping wood rather than spending their days at the drawing board. But do we really get the man? Do we get the architect? Perhaps not, but we do get instead, a presence, a construct, a figure of planes and angles who might as well be represented by one of his remarkable (and sometimes rather ugly) houses. We get, in essence, just that, an essence, Boyle's version of Frank Lloyd Wright, and it doesn't altogether convince.

That said, this is a very readable book. It brings alive a particular time in American history when a man who left his wife could be excoriated beyond the bounds of reason by public opinion. His moral turpitude ruined his business in America, so he left for Japan, only to return later to yet another set of social rules he felt compelled to break. One doesn't feel much for him as a man, but one sees the tragedy of most of the women – and the children – around him much more clearly.

For more fiction with an architectural background you might enjoy The Glass Room by Simon Mawer.

Our thanks are due to the publisher for providing this book for review.

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