I feel as if I’m engaging a bit of subterfuge here. I usually scan in an image of the cover of the book I’ve just read as well as an image of the author, which usually appears somewhere on the back cover or pages. But this one I read on my birthday-present Kindle, which offers all text and no cover art, so the images are web-imported. Now that I’ve got that little confession out of the way, a word about the Kindle experience. Very good. The only negative was that I was disappointed it wasn’t backlit like the iPad, so you need a book light of some sort for reading in the dark, or in bed when your spouse insists the lamp go out. Easy to do, especially since you don’t have to keep shifting the light or the book every time you turn a page. Just push a button (with the ipad, slide a finger across the screen) and the tale continues. There’s a built-in dictionary you can open without losing your place or having to go to a different volume. You can take notes or highlight passages, adjust font sizes.
It came into our life because the frau hogs the ipad, our other e-reader, and we wanted something else handy for traveling and the dark as described above. Yet we had neither the stomach nor the cash to spend another half-yard on another ipad to use for reading only. Kindle is handy. Me likeum. I’m not giving up on real books, of course. I got a pile for Christmas high enough to keep me till President’s weekend and probably beyond.
The first book I chose to purchase online was TC Boyle’s The Women. Writer Working has seen Boyle’s several times before, most recently in anent the disappointing Riven Rock (June 30, 2010) the novelized biography of Cyrus McCormack, he of the reaper. The Women is a also a novelized biography, this one of Frank Lloyd Wright, but it is anything but disappointing.
The women in question are the four main women in Wright’s life–his first wife and his three main mistresses (Boyle doesn’t mention more than three, but given what the guy was like … ), the second and third of which later became wives, with Olgivanna, the third, finally becoming the ONE.
But those are just facts, and convey nothing of Boyle’s treatment of the story of this egomaniacal, amoral, gangster of a genius who was as much persona as artist. There are others of his ilk, of course. Dali, say, or Warhol, who made their reputations as equal parts artist and public characters. Not that there was no talent to support the character, but to paraphrase Sondheim in Gypsy, It doesn’t hurt to have a gimmick if you have to make a living selling yourself and your work on the open market. Thus, the capes, the canes, the outrageous pronouncements (“Take care of the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves.”), and his women.
Boyle makes the story as much about the limited choices of women (not even a vote when he started his first affair in 1914) as about Wright’s romantic entanglements. The story is narrated by a former disciple/apprentice, a Japanese man who spent several years of his youth at Tallesein, Wright’s little artists’ commune near where he grew up in Wisconsin. Actually, the apprenticeships were another of Wright’s famous schemes for generating income (others included unpaid loans, commission advances on work never done, and even selling himself as a corporation in a sort of IPO.) Yes, the apprentices got exposed to the master, but they also got delegated hundreds of menial chores around the self-supporting little farm and spent hours drafting copies of Wright’s own drafts or copying for clients, all for a healthy tuition. Many dropped out, of course, but Tadashi stuck around for a long time, leaving only after being interned at Tule Lake during WWII. He is supposedly fashioning this narrative with the help of his step-grandson, who has an Irish name, the source of which we never quite learn. So there are many layers to The Women. And Boyle chooses to complicate it even more by telling the story from middle almost to the end, then going back to the beginning, when Wright falls in love with his Chicago neighbor and they both leave their spouses and children because the individual choice to live out true love takes precedence over wife, children, and anything else that wants to stand in the way. And there’s a lot in the way.
Wright’s wife, Kitty, and his six children, are entirely dependent on him and his income. What’s more, she has the power to grant him a divorce or not, something she doesn’t consent to for another eight years later. Then he goes through the same thing with a second wife. Not only that, once a divorce is complete, the law required a year’s wait before the parties could legally remarry.
Well, neither Frank nor his women had that kind of patience. If he hadn’t made himself such a flamboyant public figure, there might not have been such trouble. But he had and there was. The newspapers were intensely interested and extremely judgmental about cohabitation between unmarried couples, especially if they both happened to be married to other people. And there were other laws. The Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport a woman (don’t know if it was illegal for a woman to transport a man) across state lines for immoral purposes. So when Frank Lloyd wanted to build a house in Wisconsin and install his mistress there as “housekeeper,” reporters sniffed out the hustle right away, and people with badges got involved. All of which made for not only juicy press and titillating reading, but a difficult situation for the would-be Wrights in a community which took its morals seriously. Hard to hire help, buy land, make contracts, all the stuff you have to do to mark out a space and build an architectural landmark. if no one wants to work with you.
This pattern repeats itself with all three mistresses (with gruesome disasters along the way) in various patterns, but each of the women is very different, and Boyle gets us inside each one’s psyche to an extraordinary degree. Each of them is defined by her own character as well as by her circumstances, so although the societal constrictions are prodigious, and you could use their lives to make some cogent political arguments about women’s rights, there’s not a hint of preaching or polemic here. Its an intensely human story both for the characters and for the narrator, who becomes a central character himself.
All the chronological leapfrogging might be confusing in lesser hands, but Boyle somehow makes it part of the texture of the lives of his characters, each of them in both incident and tone echoing the lives and psyches of the others through the decades, It’s a moving book that bears reading whether on the printed page or the e-page.