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Originally published Thursday, February 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

T.C. Boyle's "The Women": a novel of the wives and lovers of Frank Lloyd Wright

T.C. Boyle's novel "The Women" chronicles the lives of four women in the life of the rule-breaking architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Boyle reads Feb. 18 at the University Village Barnes & Noble in Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

T.C. Boyle

The author of "The Women" will read at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18 at the University Village Barnes & Noble, 2675 N.E. University Village Street, Seattle (206-517-4107).

"The Women"

by T.C. Boyle

Viking, 464 pp., $27.95

T.C. Boyle is the perfect person to undertake an explication of architect Frank Lloyd Wright's life: he lives in the first of Wright's California houses, the George C. Stewart house in Santa Barbara, and he has already shown an affinity for larger-than-life characters by bringing readers cereal magnate John Harvey Kellogg (in "The Road to Wellville") and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (in "The Inner Circle").

Boyle has his hands full with Wright, whose life (1867-1959) was lived out loud and in full-cap headlines. Although there were doubtless many women, the four chronicled here are: Kitty, his first young wife, faithful and loyal, mother of six children. Kitty was left behind when Wright met Mamah Cheney, his intellectual equal and likely the great love of his life. Her tragic end at Taliesin, the home he built for her, colored his next relationship with Miriam Noel, a drug-addicted, self-involved nutcase who accused him of preferring to grieve the dead Mamah instead of attending to the living — and heavy-breathing — Miriam.

Miriam caused Wright no end of trouble, trying to have him arrested for adultery, the Mann Act, moral turpitude and anything else she could get the papers to print. Journalists had a field day with the antics of Wright and his women in their "Love Bungalows" and "Sin Nests."

The last of the women was Olgivanna, a Montenegrin dancer and disciple of Gurdjieff, the Greek-Armenian mystic and spiritual teacher. Gurdjieff's disciples were nothing if not narcissists. Olgivanna received the worst that Miriam could dish out because Miriam and Frank were still married when Olgivanna became pregnant with his child.

There is no shortage of detail in Boyle's story, much of it repetitious and boring. Money borrowed and never repaid; shunning by "decent" people because of Wright's sexual peccadilloes; the resultant loss of commissions; fights with all the women and great makeup sex. All make for gossipy fun, but it's too much by half.

One cavil about style: there is a narrative device that is intrusive rather than illustrative. The novel purports to be written by a Japanese student of Wright's, Sato Tadashi, now grown older, and Sato's granddaughter's husband, Flaherty-san. This gives Boyle latitude to add endless footnotes, none of which contribute to the story except to overburden it with useless detail, such as Sato's fondness for "sweet bean dumplings ... resembling the glow of sunrise."

Although the novel is about "The Women," they exist only as acolytes surrounding the master. He treated his students and his women much the same, requiring them always to serve his genius, whatever it required. The only woman you would want to meet is Mamah, whose story was told by San Juan Islands novelist Nancy Horan in "Loving Frank." Mamah was a wife and mother when she left her life behind and ran away with Wright. Deeply conflicted, she nevertheless continued her intellectual pursuits and maintained contact with her children until she perished in the fire at Taliesin.

Frank Lloyd Wright believed himself to be a genius, and perhaps he was. He certainly changed forever the dimensions of American architecture. Because of this unshakable belief in himself, he thought that ordinary rules were not made for him, so why acknowledge them? Why stay within the bounds of a stale marriage when he has met his soul mate? Why wait for one liaison to be neatly finessed before beginning another?

His flamboyance, arrogance, charm, ebullience and lack of financial responsibility are all writ large in this story of his women and of course, himself.

Valerie Ryan owns the Cannon Beach Book Co. in Cannon Beach, Ore.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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