The Women: A Novel

By T.C. Boyle
Publisher:Viking Adult, (2/10/2009)

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A dazzling novel of Frank Lloyd Wright, told from the point of view of the women in his life

Having brought to life eccentric cereal king John Harvey Kellogg in The Road to Wellville and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in The Inner Circle, T.C. Boyle now turns his fictional sights on an even more colorful and outlandish character: Frank Lloyd Wright. Boyle’s account of Wright’s life, as told through the experiences of the four women who loved him, blazes with his trademark wit and invention. Wright’s life was one long howling struggle against the bonds of convention, whether aesthetic, social, moral, or romantic. He never did what was expected and despite the overblown scandals surrounding his amours and very public divorces and the financial disarray that dogged him throughout his career, he never let anything get in the way of his larger-than-life appetites and visions. Wright’s triumphs and defeats were always tied to the women he loved: the Montenegrin beauty Olgivanna Milanoff; the passionate Southern belle Maud Miriam Noel; the spirited Mamah Cheney, tragically killed; and his young first wife, Kitty Tobin. In The Women, T.C. Boyle’s protean voice captures these very different women and, in doing so, creates a masterful ode to the creative life in all its complexity and grandeur.
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kfdet's thoughts on "The Women: A Novel"
updated on:8/3/2009

Mildly Unleashable

"The Women: A Novel"
By T.C. Boyle

Average Rating:
Mildly Unleashable
2.00 out of 5 (1 Clubie's ratings)

The Gentleman
The Gentleman
By Forrest Leo

 General reading guide discussion questions to be used with ANY book your book club or reading group might be discussing.

  • Imagine that you are Olga arriving at Taliesin for the first time, knowing everything you do about its previous two incarnations and the women who inspired them. What would you be feeling?

  • How does Boyle’s choice of narrator affect your reading of the novel?

  • Miriam’s first argument with Wright is over the fancy French meal she serves him. In what ways did his taste in food shape the major events of his life?

  • If Mamah hadn’t been murdered, might she and Wright have stayed happily together? What do you think of Ellen Key’s assertion that women have “the right to love in their own instinctual way”? (p. 385). Does this include adultery and abandoning her children?

  • Just before Miriam marries Wright, she reads her own translation of a Japanese poem: “The memories of long love,/gather like drifting snow . . . poignant as the Mandarin ducks/who float side by side in sleep” (p. 306). Mamah had translated a Goethe poem for Wright: “Call it happiness! . . . Heart! Love! God!/I have no name/For it! Feeling is everything!” (p. 352). What does each quote tell about the woman who chose it?

  • Do you think Wright ever found his soulmate?

  • Consider Wright’s flagrant solicitation of loans he never intended to repay. Does a visionary owe a greater obligation to his art or to the social contract?

  • What do you make of Wright’s demand for exemplary behavior—no drinking, carousing, or romantic entanglements outside marriage—from his apprentices?

  • Have you ever visited a Wright building? If so, describe the experience.

  • Does Boyle’s portrait of Wright accord with your own notions about the architect?

  • Do you read many novels about historical figures? What kind of entrée does fiction provide that mere fact cannot?

  • Clubie Submitted Discussion Questions
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    From The New Yorker
    Boyle's latest novel takes on the architect Frank Lloyd Wright by examining his notoriously tumultuous relationships with four women, each unique in her own histrionic way. Narrated in reverse chronological order by a fictional Japanese apprentice, the book is extremely readable and deftly builds a portrait of the artist as pure egoist. Unfortunately, the novel avoids any sustained consideration of Wright's relationship to his art - a passion arguably more important in forming his genius than any of the women in his life were. Still, it proves an effective showcase for Boyle's own strengths as a craftsman. His prose is full of vivid descriptions and turns of phrase that pop with a preternatural precision. 
    Copyright ©2008 Click here to subscribe to The New Yorker 

    From The Washington Post
    From The Washington Post's Book World/ Reviewed by Marie Arana Move over, Nora Roberts! With this potboiler about the love life of Frank Lloyd Wright, T.C. Boyle, one of America's most inventive writers, bursts feverishly into the realm of romance fiction. The Women is an altogether manic, occasionally baffling and yet strangely riveting novel. True readers of the genre, be warned: It's a romance only in spirit. Call it a thinking man's soap opera. As for the women, well . . . . The fiery loves that populated the life of America's premier architect make excellent grist for an over-the-top melodrama. Wright's private life was shocking, lurid, the stuff of pulp fiction. For three decades and more, American tabloids thrived on appalling revelations about it. World readers gasped over the wicked details. He had always been a flirt and womanizer. His first wife, Kitty Tobin, by whom he fathered six children, was tolerant enough of his passing infidelities. But as his fame burgeoned, Wright became more flamboyant, increasingly reckless. He rode through town in his flashy convertible, openly canoodling with his neighbor's wife. She was the lovely, strong-willed Mamah Cheney, and, before long, she was front-page news. The scandal was so outrageous that the two lovers were forced to flee to Europe, leaving their spouses and families behind. On his return, a bit more than a year later, Wright began the construction of his empire's nerve center, Taliesin, and Mamah came to live with him there, in flagrante, to the distress of their neighbors. The affair came to a tragic end when Wright's manservant went on a rampage and murdered seven of Taliesin's inhabitants, bludgeoning them with an axe. Among the victims were Mamah and her two children. All this has been retold recently in Nancy Horan's popular novel Loving Frank, but the account is only one of six parts in Boyle's salacious and exhaustive chronicle. The truth is that Wright went on to commit an abundance of peccadilloes. He took up with Maude Miriam Noel, a Memphis adventuress with a morphine habit, parading her about, to the horror of his ever-vigilant mother. Less than a year after he married Miriam, he began an affair with Olgivanna Milanoff, a former devotee of the eccentric and priapic Russian mystic Gurdjieff. When Wright brought Olgivanna to the highly disciplined -- some would say tyrannical -- Taliesin, faking her identity as a servant, his wife was already far away, bored with the country life. Nevertheless, Miriam mounted a very public and nasty long-distance campaign to smear her. But by then Olgivanna was pregnant with Wright's child. She eventually won out over Miriam and came to rule Taliesin every bit as despotically as her husband, earning the soubriquet "Dragon Lady." Boyle tells all this in garish detail, luxuriating in the considerable opportunity for heated sex and operatic gush such a chronicle of human foibles might offer. ("And he, fully aroused, his face gone rubicund and his ears glistening like Christmas ornaments in the quavering light, breathed his answer against the soft heat of her lips.") But as the novel unfolds, the quirky architecture of Boyle's book proves to be its undoing. Events proceed in reverse, so that a reader stumbles from last wife to first. Narrating the story is a fictional apprentice (Wright had many), a genial Japanese man named Tadashi Sato, whose introduction is palatable enough, but whose footnotes and asides become increasingly annoying and disruptive. Wright is Wrieto-San. And then there's a co-narrator named O'Flaherty-San. Why these buffers are necessary or why Boyle decided to employ them, we never know. What we do know is this: Every time the story begins to get some traction -- just as we're pulled toward the next juicy morsel -- we are reminded to look through a thoroughly trumped up lens. Eventually, Boyle's structure reveals itself as a steady, efficient machine against the natural drama. How can there be any tension when you know how a story will end? Where is the plot when you find yourself moving backward? As they parade by in their tidy Japanese boxes, Wright's women turn out to be strikingly similar: They are conniving harridans with big scores to settle. And though it's impossible not to read on (so striking and wild is the true story), Wright, too, becomes something of a mask: a cruel, self-absorbed, oversexed genius. Even his famous edifices never quite come alive. So much for the material. But, oh, the writing! It's the writing that pulls you through, and it's the writing that will reward you in the last scene of this altogether predictable and (sometimes deliciously) overwrought novel. Boyle is a marvel at descriptive prose. He has proved it again and again in a stream of books that includes Drop City and World's End. Through the congeries that makes up this maddening maze of a novel, you find yourself turning the page and hitting on something like this: "Outside, beyond the gray frame of the window, the weather was dreary, funereal clouds strung from the rooftops like laundry hung out to dry, and so cold even the dirty gray ratlike pigeons were huddled against it, dark motionless lines of frozen feathers and arrested beaks blighting the eaves as far as she could see down both sides of the block." So you go on, from scene to scene, marveling at a turn of phrase or some well-articulated emotion. As with a fickle lover, it's the words that keep you there. 
    Copyright 2009, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. 

    It's a lush, dense, and hyperliterate book in other words, vintage Boyle. --Publishers Weekly --This text refers to the Audio Cassette edition. 

    “Boyle at his best…love, not architecture, is the focus here…a mesmerizing story of women who invest everything, at great risk, in that mysterious ‘bank of feeling’ named Frank Lloyd Wright.”
    The New York Times Book Review

    “Boyle doesn’t just fiddle around with familiar autobiographical material. He inhabits the space of Wright’s life and times with particular boldness…Boyle isn’t just a restorer. After gathering the information he’ll use to get the motor of invention running, he goes on to create an array of indelible characters – eccentrics so absorbed in the expression of their passions that they fail to notice or care when their actions turn destructive…With his rollicking short fiction and with novels that include The Road to WellvilleThe Inner Circle, and Drop City, Boyle has been writing his own fascinating, unpredictable, alternately hilarious and terrifying fictional history of utopian longing in America. The Women adds a powerful new chapter to this continuing narrative.”
    The New York Times Book Review 
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    T.C. Boyle has written eleven novels (including World’s End, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, and Drop City, a National Book Award finalist) and eight collections of stories. His stories have been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, The Atlantic, McSweeney’s, and The Paris Review. He lives in the first of Frank Lloyd Wright’s California designs, which will celebrate its centennial this year.

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