- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2009

By T.C. Boyle
Viking, $27.95, 464 pages

T.C. Boyle’s latest, a quasi-fictional take on Frank Lloyd Wright called “The Women,” would have been more accurately dubbed “Miriam.”

The Miriam in question is Maude “Miriam” Noel, the woman who shredded the famed architect’s career and emotional compass even though they were officially married for only one year. She’s the true star of “The Women,” and one’s appreciation for the emotional shipwreck that is Miriam will determine the level of pleasure to be had here.

“The Women” deposits Mr. Boyle back on familiar ground, deconstructing history. In “The Road to Wellville,” he added fiction to the life of cereal magnate John Harvey Kellogg, and in “The Inner Circle” the star was sex researcher Alfred Kinsey.

Unfortunately, in “The Women,” readers will not learn as much about Wright as they might like. They will see the architectural giant’s cultural clout, frisky intellect and insatiable fire to create. In fact, in this book as much as anything else he is a demigod, a figure around whom people revolve and worship. Those in his circle seem to thrive on his mere presence, but where is Wright the visionary?

We get fleeting glimpses of his craft, but “The Women” is far more interested in his romantic exploits and what they say about his character.

Mr. Boyle takes a hacksaw to conventional narrative, telling readers about Wright’s romantic life in fractured reverse through the eyes of a loyal Japanese apprentice. It’s a curious approach, and it leaves the architect’s greatest tragedy for the final pages.

Not all of Mr. Wright’s relationships were as stormy as the one he had with Miriam. His first wife, Kitty, bore him six children and gave him a sense of purpose until he fell for an intellectually vibrant neighbor named Mamah Cheney. And Mr. Wright’s courtship of Olgivanna Milanoff, a Montenegrin stunner, followed a somewhat conventional arc.

As these liaisons are depicted in the book, much is revealed about Wright as a man of great passion and limited maturity. His ego allowed him to pursue his affairs with women unchecked, always confident he was one well-timed news article, or great building, away from a comeback.

He was usually right, but it sapped him of crucial time he might otherwise have devoted to his art, or even his family members. The only child Wright appears to embrace in a loving fashion here is Olgivanna’s daughter.

“The Women” may revolve around Wright’s empire and the devotion he inspired, but the story’s most penetrating figure remains Miriam.

She’s part Southern belle, part Jerry Springer guest and which one often depended on mood or morphine. She blazes through the book’s middle section but never really goes away. Her lingering impact on Wright says as much about his inability to manage his personal life as it does about her influence.

One wonders why Wright saw fit to romance such a complicated and often destructive woman. However, when she disappears from the story it’s equally hard not to wish her right back.

Mr. Boyle isn’t content to simply exploit Wright’s colorful romantic life for the novel. He uses its pages to illuminate some of the more arcane laws that governed the land in the early half of the 20th century — legislation like the Mann Act that subjected those having extramarital flings to legal measures that often included jail time.

Wright was cursed to live in an era where his appetites invited public shame, and of his dilemma Mr. Boyle writes:

“How was he to get work if no one would negotiate with him in good faith or even look him in the eye for fear of catching his moral contagion?”

Had Mr. Wright kept his nose clean on a personal level, it’s hard to imagine how much more work he could have accomplished. Or is Mr. Boyle arguing that Mr. Wright’s tortured personal life drove him harder, coaxing him to create newer and better buildings just to keep his finances — and career — afloat?

The author wisely lets such questions linger.

Nevertheless, throughout the book, readers are treated to the author’s gift for precision and detail. Here, he describes Miriam pulling a derringer from her purse:

“It was cold to the touch, as if its shiny nickel plating had just been dug from the earth.”

In the end, “The Women” is more first-class melodrama than incisive biography. But it raises more than a few interesting questions about a morally circumscribed culture that often constrained its geniuses and about an artist at the mercy of his appetites.

Christian Toto, who writes frequently on popular culture for The Washington Times, lives in Denver.

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