My rendezvous with this novel, which was on a sale table at Borders, was too coincidental to ignore. I’ve always loved the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, and I always meant to read something by T. C. Boyle. When the two forces coalesced, I was helpless. Of course, this novel is about Wright’s messy relationships with the four women he loved, not his work—but through them and the narrator, we do get a sense of the complete man.
It’s fascinating to learn about each of the women and see how the architect, a classic narcissist, interacted with them and others in his world. But Boyle takes us beyond fascination. There are many elements of interest to writers here.
If I were contemplating writing this novel, the first question I would ponder is who should narrate it. Each of the four women and Wright himself—five narrators? Have Wright tell his own story? Use an omniscient narrator?
An email dialogue with T.C. Boyle. Cameron Martin, Barnes and Noble Review
Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition, Milwaukee Art Museum
“Novel Sheds Light on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mistress.” Susan Stamberg, NPR
Boyle did none of the above. He created a completely fictional narrator, 25-year-old Sato Tadashi, a Japanese national whose father has paid steep tuition for him to join the Taliesin Fellowship and work directly with Wright. Intelligent, likable Tadashi was a smart choice for the book. Readers not only see the characters through Tadashi’s cultural bias, which makes this version of Wright’s life unique, but also get a look at the treatment of Japanese in midwestern America during the 1930s and 40s—including a poignant section in which Tadashi is sent away for internment. Bravo to Boyle for finding a way to lobby for social justice.
Tadashi tells his own story in a chapter prefacing each part of the three-part book, then comments in footnotes in the chapters that follow. He narrates those chapters in close third, capturing the voice of the dominant character: Olgivanna (wife three), Miriam (wife two), Mamah (mistress), Kitty (wife one), Frank, or the Barbadian servant, Julian Carleton, who murdered Mamah and seven others and set Taliesin on fire.
Tadashi comes to Taliesin late in Wright’s story (accurately, in terms of the establishment of the Fellowship), when the architect is married to his last wife. Fictional Tadashi relies on opinions from a fictional translator, his Caucasian grandson-in-law, who helps him get at the truth of Frank Lloyd Wright. The device is a bit muddy; Boyle could have carried on without this layer of complication.
However, Boyle does a terrific, fun job of expressing the character of Miriam, Frank’s morphine-addicted, flamboyant second wife (whom he married when Kitty granted him a divorce after Mamah’s murder). The chapters involving the psychotic servant, Carleton, also sing. A caveat: Boyle gives an island dialect to Carleton’s peasant wife, Gertrude. It serves a purpose—to contrast his education with her lack of it—but it made me, as a reader, slow way down to pronounce the words in my mind. Use dialect sparingly, if you have to use it at all. You don’t want the reader drifting out of the story. The Carelton chapters were the climax of the novel, so at least Boyle had timing on his side.
Another choice Boyle had to make was how to structure the story. The logical choice would be to do it chronologically, but that wouldn’t have been the dramatic choice. He introduces Tadashi and then Olgivanna. From there he works backwards, with overlaps. (The overlaps were actually a gift of Wright himself; that’s how the man lived. When one wife refused to grant him a divorce, he simply carried on with a mistress.) At first I was thrown by Boyle’s reverse structure, which (obviously) didn’t move the story forward or build much tension from chapter to chapter, but his reasoning became clear in the end. He closes with Mamah’s murder. High drama. But was it a great structural choice? If the novel hadn’t been about Frank Lloyd Wright, I might not have made it to the end.
Creating enduring characters may be the biggest job a writer faces. The fact that most of the characters in The Women were real made the job easier for Boyle, but he did a good job breathing his own energy into them. Here is a passage from Miriam (close third pov), who’s temporarily left Wright to stay in Los Angeles at the home of her friend, when she sees his divorce summons: “Yes, she’d left him. Of course she had. Anyone would have. A saint—even the martyrs in their hair shirts and bloody rags. He was impossible, the single most infuriating human being she’d ever met, what with his God complex and his perfectionism, fussing over every last detail as if the world depended on it, his snoring, his musical evenings, the utter soul-crushing desolation of rural Wisconsin where he all but kept her prisoner and every overfed housewife and goggling rube staring at her as if she had the letter A sewed to the front of her dress. Of course she’d left him. But that didn’t mean she didn’t love him still.”
In the end, The Women is an intriguing, high-energy story with good pacing and some lovely language and imagery. And if one of your characters is a narcissist, as one of mine is, this is the book for you. There’s no better model for it than Frank Lloyd Wright.