4 / 5
"I didn't know much about automobiles at the time--still don't, for that matter--but it was an automobile that took me to Taliesin in the fall of 1932, through a country alternately fortified with trees and rolled out like a carpet to the back walls of its barns, hayricks and farmhouses, through towns with names like Black Earth, Mazomanie and Coon Rock, where no one in living memory had ever seen a Japanese face."
Frank Lloyd Wright's life was one long, howling struggle against the bonds of convention, whether aesthetic, social, moral, or romantic. He never did what was expected, and he never let anything get in the way of his larger-than-life appetites and visions. Told through the experiences of the four women who loved him, this imaginative account of Wright's raucous life blazes with Boyle's trademark wit and invention. Boyle's protean voice captures these very different women and, in doing so, creates a masterful ode to the creative life in all its complexity and grandeur.
Holy epic historical fiction, TC Boyle! Wow. What a great and fascinating story. And what an amazing way to frame it, telling it all (in reverse order, nonetheless!) through the eyes of a fictionalized Japanese apprentice. Wright certainly was a hardcore Nipponophile, so it seems that having an apprentice from that culture was quite appropriate. But, the story wasn't about the apprentice at all. What it centered around (as the title suggests) are the four women who loved and suffered at the hands of the famous architect. This was a story I was entirely unfamiliar with, so it was fascinating to hear all about Taliesin (the home he built for his first mistress), the fire that burned it down, and the subsequent female tornadoes that blew through the rebuilt "love nest". Because each really was a unique and very strong personality. Which may have been why Wright fell in love with them in the first place. And it was intriguing to watch all of these stories play out during the period of American history when both "free love" and divorce were in their infancy. The Mann Act of 1910 played a huge role during all of this relationship drama. Even though its original intent was to put a stop to prostitution, it was frequently evoked to stop Wright from taking up with a new woman whenever he fancied, leaving the last in the dust.
I know I didn't like Wright's personality, that was a given, but I can't decide whether I like how Boyle portrayed the women themselves; I was upset at first because it felt like he wrote Miriam too crazy, when any woman who was used and then tossed aside would justifiably feel hurt and want to know why they'd been thrown over. However, as Miriam's character continues to be revealed through her actions, I understand the fine line the author was trying to tread. Miriam was crazy, and a drug addict. Her reactions to Wright's actions were understandable, until they became extreme. I was glued to the page, watching that woman's story (and mind) unspool.
What I think I appreciated most about this masterpiece was how the entire book was written, in a sense, backwards! The reader first meets Olgivanna, the woman with whom Wright finished out his life. Through the "eyes" of that relationship, we are introduced to Miriam, who tries to break the union up. In book two, we get to see how Miriam insinuated herself into Wright's life, and then in book three, we are introduced to the first wife and then the first mistress. Boyle writes them all so we can understand their motivations and points of view. I thought that was a truly original and very clever way in which to present the story of Wright's endlessly diverting personal life.
I knew about Falling Water. I knew about the Guggenheim. What I didn't know about was this other side of FLW's life, which I don't think I really like, but I was fascinated to see. That a genius of that level had such odd views outside of his profession was endlessly fascinating. That we, as a nation and as historians, forgave him all his indiscretions (at the time each was quite the scandal!) - I am amazed to see that we allow this legacy to live on in his work. Well, I suppose that's better than his legacy being the abysmal way he treated women!
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