That’s all I knew or cared to know about the man. And then I spotted The Women at the local library and pounced on it — it’s T.C. Boyle, so I know it’s going to be good.
The story is narrated by Sato Tadashi, one of Wright’s many ‘apprentices’ in the pre-WWII period (this is fiction with main events grounded in fact). He is reminiscing on his life as one of the chosen few who got to live and work with the master in Taliesin, his house in Wisconsin. He wants to tell the story of the three final women in Wright’s life: Mamah (pronounced May-mah) Borthwick Cheney, Maude Miriam Noel Wright, and Olgivanna Wright (as well as a small appearance from his first wife Kitty).
These women existed. The mass murder and fires at Taliesin really happened. His step-daughter really ran off with one of the apprentices and later died in a car accident. What Boyle has brought to life is the kind of person Wright was (could have been?), and what kinds of people his lovers (and wives) were like. There was definitely the least sympathy for morphine addict Miriam, who was full of self-justification and unpleasantness, and the most for Mamah, who may have been the love of Wright’s life, taken from him far too soon.
I love the way Boyle evokes a past era so effortlessly. I’ve never thought twice about cohabitation before marriage — indeed, I encourage it for anyone thinking of getting hitched — but I could almost smell and taste the conservative reactions and feelings of the community via the rebellious behaviour of the more enlightened* and carefree Wright (and his paramours). Men didn’t leave their wives and openly install mistresses in other homes! Women didn’t leave their husbands and live with other men! God forbid!
The message I got about Wright and his women were: he was a narcissistic, selfish, artistic genius, and the women who were looking for something exciting and different were drawn to him. With the exception of Olgivanna, his women weren’t too accepting of the reality of living his Taliesin dream. It was hard work, and he liked to spend money he didn’t have. What a strange love story, and another gem from T.C. Boyle.
(I’ve been recommended Loving Frank as a follow-up, but if it’s a bodice-ripper like some of reader reviews have described, it may not be for me.)
* I suspect it’s more selfishness and self-absorption, but what do I know?