By T.C. Boyle
Viking, 451 pages, $28
Book by book, yarn by yarn, the novelist T.C. Boyle has been assembling a fabulous and tawdry imaginative history of the United States. Like great, gleaming zeppelins in an age of commuter jets, his novels have lifted off from unlikely true-life departure points — the creator of cornflakes was one hero, Alfred C. Kinsey another — and looked down upon the landscape of our history with a cheery, expansive view of sex, ambition, and the great American desire to make a buck.
With his 12th novel, Boyle has finally settled down with a true Yankee icon, though, Frank Lloyd Wright. A man everyone, it seems, can agree was a genius and a great American hero. But how many of us know the details of his amorous life? Nancy Horan's fabulous 2007 novel Loving Frank opened a large chink in Wright's biographical armor, and The Women ought to blow it wide open. Like The Inner Circle, Boyle's novel about Kinsey, this sexy, hilarious page-turner recreates the rolling storm-front created by a charming man determined to live outside of conventions.
Tacking backwards through the years, with minor interruptions from a Japanese student who came to Wright's Wisconsin estate to learn from him, The Women tells the tale of the architect's life through the prism of three women he loved: Olgivanna Milanoff, a Serbian beauty he met as his marriage to the Memphis-born Maude Miriam Noel entered its final downward judder. And prior to them both, there was Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the real-life heroine of Horan's novel, who was horrifically murdered in Wright's home.
Unlike so many novels about historical figures, there is no ballast of a thesis weighing this book down. Boyle knows a novel lives and dies by its characters, and The Women gives tremendous life to the ladies of its title.
The intelligence of his narrative voice is alive on every page as he resurrects the texture of their emotions as Wright charms, lands, abandons, and then destroys each one in turn. In one heartbreaking moment, it becomes clear that the ruse by which the married Wright introduces Olgivanna to his Wisconsin estate staff — she is the maid — has been used before, with his previous wife, whom he also met and bedded while married.
At first the novel's reverse chronological structure seems baffling — its title a potential slap at the minor role of minor characters in a great man's life. Yet the deeper one reads into The Women, the more sense both make to the reader. As we dream backwards into Wright's life, it is these beautiful, troubled, hilarious, tough-willed women who rise into view — not the great architect. By the end of Boyle's tale, it is the genius who has been eclipsed, lost in history's vortex, not his women. It's about time.
John Freeman is the American editor of Granta magazine.