The Women by T.C. Boyle is novel about Frank Lloyd Wright in the context of the women he loved. If you’re unfamiliar with Wright, he was married three times, had a mistress in between wives one and two, and seemed to have a strong attachment to his mother. While the story is interesting, the structure of the novel is much more compelling.
The novel is told from the fantastical perspective of a Japanese architect, Tadashi Sato, who arrives at Taliesin in 1932 as an apprentice. The novel is then translated by Sato’s granddaughter’s husband, Seamus O’Flaherty, an American writer. Boyle has created a perspective from a low-ranking outsider’s point-of-view and is able to work in research and style through O’Flaherty’s background as a writer. It allows a lot of distance from a figure so well-known and polarizing. Also, it gives Boyle flexibility, mainly through footnotes, to write asides based on Sato’s or O’Flaherty’s perspective.
Going back to structure though, how would you tell the life story of a man? For most people, I imagine it to be rather linear. Either start at the beginning or a certain point in time and move forward. Instead, Boyle begins at the end with Frank Lloyd Wright’s third marriage. We see from Sato’s perspective, the third Mrs. Wright after years of marriage. In the first section though, the novel focuses on Wright falling in love with Olgivanna and starting the divorce process with his second wife, Miriam. I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s hard to like Miriam and equally hard to see what Wright liked about her.
As the first section closes though, the second section is about Miriam and how her relationship with Wright began. This section dragged mainly because I was so worn out by Miriam in the previous section. While she’s not as terrible in this part, she’s still not very likable.
Finally, the novel concludes with Mamah, Wright’s mistress and the dissolution of his first marriage to Kitty. This section is tragic. The novel closes with Miriam reading about the tragedy in a newspaper and thinking, “that poor man. That poor, poor man,” having not yet met him.
As I’ve thought about the novel, I’ve also thought about Wright’s architecture. He’s said to have always modifying things, making slight changes to plans or buildings as they work is going on. His design is described as organic and I wonder about the cyclical form of nature and how it applies to storytelling. Boyle takes us back to the beginning. It’s almost like watching the universe rewind to the big bang. Here. Here is the moment that will mark Frank Lloyd Wright for the rest of his life.
Moving past the structure, I enjoyed the novel for the window into Wright’s life. The scandals and media attention which engulfed him though was claustrophobic. Wright was a complicated man, made more complicated by the media frenzy which followed him. Imagine a flamboyant Steve Jobs with multiple public affairs.