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T.C. Boyle and Frank Lloyd Wright's women

February 8, 2009 |  2:18 pm

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The four women of "The Women," T.C. Boyle's new novel, are lovers and wives of superstar architect Frank Lloyd Wright. One of them, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, was fictionally revived recently in "Loving Frank," the 2007 debut novel from Nancy Horan. Perhaps Boyle's treatment is a little bit sharper-edged; an excerpt of the narrative of the most hot-tempered of them, Miriam, appeared in LA Weekly last month. It begins:

None of the doctors could help her in Los Angeles or the provincial outpost of San Diego either, little people all of them, sniveling types, handwringers, an army of effete bald-headed men in spectacles who were mortified of the law — as if this law had any more right to exist than Prohibition, because who was the federal government to dictate what people could and couldn’t do with their own bodies, their own minds, their personal needs and wants and compulsions?

It's a short and surprising excerpt, filled with Miriam's haughty rage, a flawed personality that might turn some readers off but made me want to read the book. Our reviewer, Taylor Antrim, notes that "critics like to scold Boyle for a lack of authorial generosity," but in fact finds Boyle's generosity toward Frank Lloyd Wright the book's weak point. "Wright gets an enormous pass. Why not take his character on a bit more and maybe rough him up a little for his high-handedness and arrogance?"

Not that Boyle isn't aware of that arrogance. In an interview for the L.A. Times, he told Mark Rozzo about the  commonalities between himself and Wright. "We are both architects in a way. We both deal with structure, we are both artists, and we are both egomaniacs." And also: "I have worn a cape. There is where we end."

Boyle has had plenty of time to think about Wright, as he lives in a Frank Lloyd Wright house near Santa Barbara (pictured, above). In 2003, The Times visited Boyle at the house.

"Wright always kept his eye on nature, and so have I," says Boyle. "My books look at people as an animal species living within the context of nature, and I suppose you could say the same of Wright."

How the house interacts with nature after the jump.

From our 2003 visit to his house:

This context is best experienced just outside the living room, where a tangle of Victorian box and black acacia trees, scrub oaks and eucalyptus crowd the sky, leaving cotoneaster, yellow-flowering oxalis, platter-sized nasturtiums, Mexican sage, English ivy and bird of paradise to fight among themselves for available light.

Boyle calls this his jungle, and indeed, coming upon the house from this angle is like stumbling upon a Mayan temple buried deep in the Yucatán. Board-and-batten redwood zigzags monumentally across right-angled facades; dramatic roof lines cascade high overhead; and the broad expanses of windows skirt each story.

Within this jungle are Boyle's beloved critters: the gophers, scrub jays, doves, raccoons, monarch butterflies, possible skunks and occasional hawks and coyotes, attracted to the pond he dug and landscaped near the southern property line. It is here, working to create this jungle with its fallen trees and stone-lined paths, that Boyle wanders dreaming of plot lines, character and behavior.

Unlike most of his other commissions, Wright never visited this site before drawing the plans. The home existed in his imagination until, nearly 50 years later, he passed through Southern California....

Boyle will read from "The Women," as he imagined them, at the 92nd Street Y in New York on Monday and then continue around the country for multiple appearances. He returns home -- to his Frank Lloyd Wright House -- on March 1.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Anacleto Rapping / L.A. Times

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