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By T.C. Boyle
Viking / Penguin
Back in 2007 when I first started doing book reviews on a regular basis, one of the first older titles I tackled was by the magnificent T.C. Boyle, because of him being almost a textbook example of the type of author perfect for this site's "Tales from the Completist" series -- he has a wide range of books out now, each roughly as popular as the others, with significant differences between each but common themes to them all, a writer who has by now proven his importance to literary history but who continues to crank out new novels on a regular basis. So I was quite happy to say the least to recently stumble across his latest at my neighborhood library, 2009's The Women, which like many of his previous titles uses a true incident at its core in order to spin a seriocomic tale around it; in this case, a semi-biographical look at the life of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, seen through the eyes of the four lovers he had as an adult, three of whom were eventually wives and an overlapping three of whom were at first illicit mistresses.
Although to Wright purists, let's make it clear right away that it's only a certain chunk of Wright's complicated and event-filled life that Boyle looks at here -- his decades spent at Taliesin, that is, the cutting-edge compound in the back woods of Wisconsin where he lived in the middle years of his life, which started simply as a retirement home for his ailing mother but eventually became an Objectivist-style refuge from the mouthbreathers of the world for all manner of haughty intellectuals, where residents were held to a more European standard of living (looser relationships but tighter morals), and where Wright wielded an iron fist over such forward-thinking pet habits as a ban on smoking and alcohol. And in fact, presented in this way, it's easy to see why Boyle would be attracted to such material to begin with, because within it are the seeds that also make up the two older novels of his I've already read, 2003's Drop City and 1993's The Road to Wellville (and I'm sure more of his books that I'm not yet familiar with); after all, they each deal with voluntarily isolated groups of "true believers" ensconced in rural American utopian enclaves, earnest yet slightly crazy people living existences defined by bizarrely specific rules, under the tight control of a cultish, eccentric leader, in this case making such a story work by ignoring Wright's early years in Chicago and late life in Arizona, instead focusing on his years in the Upper Midwest and all the dysfunctional events that took place there.
Because make no mistake, there were plenty of dysfunctional events that took place at Taliesin, a wealth of strange turns that keeps this thick yet easily readable story clicking along at a fast pace -- a man who was simply born to love women, Wright was one of the first big public figures at the end of the Victorian Age to embrace the idea of couples cohabitating without being married (the proverbial "living in sin"), with Taliesin quickly dubbed by the press as a smokily erotic den of iniquity, where an endless series of east-coast showgirls, European bohemians, and other undesirables maintained a rather steady revolving door all through the Edwardian Age and then into Modernism, as Wright's personal fortunes went from great to terrible to great again, using the Wisconsin campus itself as a rather literal living laboratory for his cutting-edge theories involving building materials, urban planning and more, keeping afloat in the lean years by selling off some of his antique Japanese prints, one of the biggest and most prestigious collections in Western hands at the time.
Much like his other books, then, Boyle uses this milieu to spin a tale by turns equally tragic and funny, a look at these years that clearly comes from a place of love and admiration, but that doesn't hesitate to get dark or critical whenever the occasion is warranted. And that's a fine line to tread, frankly, when basing such a story on true events, which is a big part of Boyle's magic, and why he's such an obsessively loved author in the first place; because his dedication to deep academic-style research keeps books like these honest in their details, while his sensitivity and fine touch keeps them emotionally honest as well, not lazy hatchet jobs despite their many cringe-inducing moments but rather these ironically sweet odes to the perpetual complexity of the human spirit, of the ephemeral traits that make all of us admired in some circumstances and despised in others. (And in fact Boyle even structures The Women in a way so to emphasize this duality, in effect telling the story chronologically backwards, so that each section starts with his previous lover as villain and the new lover as hero, but with the next section presenting that villain now as the new hero and the lover before her as the new villain, an ingenious framing device for a story that's ultimately about a charming man who unfortunately got tired of his lovers rather quickly.)
As with the other titles of his I've now read, this all adds up by the end to a rather delightful experience, a pleasing mix of academic focus and beach-read thrills which is what makes Boyle one of my favorite living writers on the planet right now; and if you've never tackled one of his oddly compelling titles before yourself, this is an excellent one to start with, not least of which is because of the storyline itself being already so well-known and thoroughly documented. It comes highly recommended today, and makes me anxious to jump right back into Boyle's funny, ribald universe as soon as I can.
Out of 10: 9.3