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A Frank appraisal

Boyle’s latest looks at the women who shaped the iconic architect

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John Freeman

Book by book, yarn by yarn, novelist T.C. Boyle has been assembling a fabulous and tawdry imaginative U.S. history. Like great gleaming zeppelins in an age of commuter jets, his novels have lifted off from unlikely true-life departure points—the creator of cornflakes was one hero, Alfred C. Kinsey another—and looked down upon the landscape of our history with a cheery, expansive view of sex, ambition and the great American desire to make a buck.

With his 12th novel, Boyle has finally settled down with a true Yankee icon—Frank Lloyd Wright. A man everyone, it seems, can agree was a genius and a great American hero. But how many of us know the details of his amorous life? Nancy Horan’s fabulous 2007 novel Loving Frank opened a large chink in Wright’s biographical armor, and The Women ought to blow it wide open. Like The Inner Circle, Boyle’s novel about Kinsey, this sexy, hilarious page-turner re-creates the rolling storm front created by a charming man determined to live outside of conventions.

Tacking backward, The Women tells of the architect’s life through the prism of three women he loved. One, Olgivanna Milanoff, was a Serbian beauty he met as his marriage to another, the Memphis-born Maude Miriam Noel, entered its downward judder. Prior to them both, there was Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the heroine of Horan’s novel, horrifically murdered at Wright’s home.

The Details

The Women: A Novel
Four stars
T.C. Boyle
Viking, $28.
Amazon: The Novel

Boyle knows a novel lives and dies by its characters, and The Women gives tremendous life to the ladies of its title. The intelligence of his narrative voice is alive on every page as he resurrects the texture of their emotions as Wright charms, lands, abandons and then destroys each one in turn. In one heartbreaking moment, it becomes clear that the ruse through which the married Wright introduces Milanoff to his Wisconsin estate staff—she is the maid—has been used before, with his previous wife, whom he also met and bedded while married.

At first, the novel’s reverse chronological structure seems baffling, its title a potential slap at the minor role of minor characters in a great man’s life. Yet the deeper one reads, the more sense both make to the reader. As we dream backward into Wright’s life, it is these beautiful, troubled, hilarious, tough-willed women who rise into view—not the great architect. By the end of Boyle’s tale, it is the genius who has been eclipsed, lost in history’s vortex, not his women. It’s about time.

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