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BOOK REVIEW

'The Women,' by T.C. Boyle

February 08, 2009|Taylor Antrim | Antrim is the author of the novel "The Headmaster Ritual."

The Women

A Novel

T.C. Boyle

Viking: 452 pp. $27.95

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On paper, T.C. Boyle's latest novel, "The Women," sounds like a prizefight: Swaggering fiction heavyweight takes on America's greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Boyle has written about outsized historical personalities before -- notably, cereal magnate and doctor John Harvey Kellogg in "The Road to Wellville" and midcentury sexologist Alfred Kinsey in "The Inner Circle" -- but Wright's eminence and notoriety towers over both. " 'The Women,' " Boyle has said, "is part of my egomaniacs of the 20th century series," but surely this is the culmination, the apotheosis. As a study of self-regard, how do you top a novel about Frank Lloyd Wright? With one on Picasso? Or Donald Rumsfeld?

No need to give Boyle any ideas. He's as fearless and up-for-it a writer as any working today. His output so far -- 12 novels and eight short-story collections, 20 books in 30 years -- proves he can do just about anything: big, heavily researched historical epics (arguably his forte), short mousetrap satires, headlong thrillers. It's hard to belt a theme around such a sprawling body of work, but the cause and effect between human appetite -- for fame, sex, money, freedom -- and folly nearly serves.

Critics like to scold Boyle for a lack of authorial generosity, for writing stories in which scoundrels and dopes get what's coming to them. But the recent novels (especially the rollicking "Drop City") have been emotionally complex and deeply felt -- and, anyway, what's so sacrosanct about generosity? Can't fiction run on wickedness? "Art is for entertainment," Boyle has said in one of his typically irrepressible interviews. "And so I am an entertainer."

All of which bodes well for "The Women." The father of the Prairie style of architecture and creator of Fallingwater (1939) and New York's Guggenheim Museum (1959), Wright carried on scandalous romances, endured personal tragedy and routinely uttered the kind of gasbag statements that cry out for a rambunctious satirist like Boyle. A humdinger serves as the novel's epigraph: "Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility; I chose arrogance." The potential for entertainment (and wickedness) is high.

But while "The Women" is diverting and vivid, as most Boyle novels are, it is also remarkably benign in its portrayal of Wright. Sure, he can be a touch imperious -- wonderfully so in a brief scene with a Lincoln car salesman. But more often, the novel offers him up as a magnetic, well-meaning guy, the "soul of levity," as his last wife, Olgivanna Milanoff, sees him, who "encouraged jocularity in his associates and apprentices." His signal flaw, we're told, is a weakness for strong-willed women.

This brings us to the novel's true subject: Kitty, Mamah, Miriam and Olgivanna. Different as these four are, they all worship equally at Wright's altar. Catherine "Kitty" Tobin is the dutiful wife, producing six children over two decades before reluctantly granting him a divorce. Mamah Borthwick Cheney is Wright's fiery proto-feminist "soul mate," who abandons her husband and children to travel Europe and live in sin with Wright at his Wisconsin estate, Taliesin. Maude Miriam Noel is a morphine addict with sophisticated tastes and a fearsome jealous streak. And finally, there is Olgivanna, a young Montenegrin dancer who discovers her backbone by standing up to the indomitable Miriam.

Each woman is memorable, but Miriam steals the show, tearing off her clothes, attacking Wright, brandishing a gun, hurling dinner plates across the lawn. Boyle's extravagant, even lurid prose serves him well here. On the phone with Wright, Miriam utters a "shriek, so raw and explosive it was as if the woman on the other end of the line were being stabbed in the throat." When Miriam is in a morphine daze, the syringe sticking out of her leg becomes "a parasite, some bloated tick or leech fastened there where it didn't belong."

Boyle can write with subtlety as well -- his descriptions of Taliesin are hushed and reverent -- but he seems to delight in cranking up the volume. "Slut!" Miriam screams, confronting Olgivanna in a hospital scene. "Vampire! Whore!" And then there are the horrifying murders that occurred at Taliesin, an episode in Wright's life that Boyle relates with commanding skill.

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