T.C. Boyle's Frank Lloyd Wright novel falls short

February 5, 2009 11:21:43 AM PST
It's odd that "The Women," T.C. Boyle's new historical novel about America's greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, seems to have little to say about architecture, or for that matter, about Wright himself.

Boyle lives in a Wright design in California and clearly knows the work, but his Wright doesn't talk much about organic architecture, form and function, or Prairie-style homes in this novel. He seems to be working hard certainly, always drafting designs and pursuing commissions, but usually in another room, just off stage.

"The Women" is not a book about the great man's work; it's a book about the distractions from that work. It's about the sexier, messier stuff, the scandals of his romantic entanglements. "He was one of those sexually charged men," the narrator writes, "who couldn't live without a woman at the center of his life."

It may be a reasonable approach since most of us want just a side order of history with our historical fiction, and sex is nearly always sexier than architecture. But the result is a Frank Lloyd Wright who seems a little flat and underdeveloped as a fictional character.

He bounds around the room, works with matchless energy, grows alternately exasperated and enraged, but what beyond this? What questions about architecture and design fueled his work? A novel about Frank Lloyd Wright that is not immersed in the details of his work and his obsessions seems to have missed the very point of the man.

The introduction, written by a fictional Japanese apprentice, promises to ask whether Wright was a "wounded genius" or "the philanderer and sociopath who abused the trust of practically everyone he knew, especially the women, especially them." Probably a little of both, but the questions never really get asked or answered.

Instead, the novel gets pushed along by the four women he loved, three of whom he married: his first wife Kitty, his mistress Mamah, his second wife Miriam, and his third and final wife Olgivanna. Boyle does a better job with the women, presenting each as peculiar and flawed characters.

But the most sensational and fantastically ridiculous one is Miriam, a florid, grasping snob from Memphis, Tenn. Imagine a middle-aged Scarlett O'Hara with a hardcore intravenous drug problem. She's the woman scorned, the screeching harpy who terrorizes Wright with legal proceedings and public embarrassments, disrupting his life and his work. She's the best thing in the book - vivid and compelling - but drawn without much empathy. Miriam is horrible, certainly, but Boyle goes to extravagant ends to humiliate her.

A chief difficulty of any historical novel is that for it to have any claim on being "historical," it's forced to hew in some measure to the facts. The plot must follow the actual life lived. And with Wright, there's a certain repetition to the proceedings: He meets a new woman, cheats on the woman he's with, scandal and notoriety ensue, he's forced to salvage his reputation and scrape for more money to complete his latest project.

Boyle, who has written previous historical novels about sex researcher Alfred Kinsey and breakfast cereal guru John Harvey Kellogg, deals with this problem skillfully by placing the most dramatic and horrifying event in Wright's life at the end of the book, even though chronologically it occurs mid-career. (Anyone who knows Wright well is surely aware of the incident, but it seems wrong to reveal it here.)

Boyle does a fine job of plausibly reconstructing this horror. In fact, much of the novel is well told in a straightforward prose style gilded with shiny adjectives (luteous, oleaginous, autochthonous, soi-disant). There are striking set pieces, at least one vivid character. "The Women" is far from being an unpleasant read, but there's something lacking, a failure in the fictional architecture that produces a less-than-great novel.