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The Women

T.C. Boyle's latest novel is a wild and improvisational examination of Frank Lloyd Wright and the women he loved.

By Carlo Wolff / February 14, 2009



The word fugue has two meanings. It can signify a musical composition whose swirling variations on a theme create a whole more complex than its parts. Or it can refer to a pathological, stressful psychological state.

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These two definitions blend in The Women, T.C. Boyle’s wild, improvisational novel about architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the women he loved.

Published a year and a half after Nancy Horan’s “Loving Frank,” a well-researched but less animated reimagining of Wright’s affair with proto-feminist Mamah Borthwick Cheney, Boyle’s novel is both more ambitious and better written.

Like the Horan novel, “The Women” creates an unflattering view of Wright as a man consumed by ambition, vanity, and spectacularly undisciplined hormones.

But it also rounds him out, as it does the women in his life. These include Cheney, who was his longtime mistress, and his three wives: the underdrawn Kitty Tobin, the exotic Montenegrin Olgivanna Milanoff, and the exuberantly presented Maude Miriam Noel, a lapsed Southern belle who matched Wright in relentlessness and exceeded him in cruelty.

Each gets her own section, with Wright as the constant. A subtext to all, and functioning as an emotional corollary, is Wright’s work, spanning the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, various houses in California and in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park and, of course, Taliesin, the fabled Wisconsin redoubt Wright brought to life against vast societal odds and then lost to fire.

An original, Wright was indeed a visionary, and Boyle seems to enjoy exploring him from many angles, He had a mundane palate (a lapse which infuriated the socially pretentious Maude). He was blessed with unbridled energy. And above all, he achieved a type of symbiosis with his projects, a symbiosis that could shade into obsessiveness.

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