>Building a Book: A Pen & Palette review of T. C. Boyle’s novel, “The Women.”

>I’m a slow reader. It took me a month to finish my first “beach read” this summer, and I really didn’t read much of it while I was at the beach—either in May or June. But this morning I finished one of the most enjoyable novels I’ve read in a while—T. C. Boyle’s New York Times Bestseller, “The Women.”

I think two things drew me to the book: (1) my daughter, Beth, just got her masters in architecture in May (the book is about Frank Lloyd Wright) and (2) it’s a novel based on real people, but not really “historic fiction.” I’m fascinated by Boyle’s mix of fact and fiction, down to the use of footnotes—in a novel—which struck me as odd, but I really enjoyed them. As I continue work on my own novel, Boyle’s book helped me immensely. The way he brought out the complexity of human feelings and relationships while weaving a saga with gorgeous prose left me breathless at times.

A little background: Wright had three wives and one mistress, in this order: (1) Catherine “Kitty” Tobin, (2) Maude Miriam Noel, (3) Olgivanna Lazovich Milanoff and his mistress, (4) Mamah Borthwick Cheney. The man—husband, lover, artist, and narcissist—is revealed through the women who loved him. But the narrator for the story is actually Tadashi Sato, a fictional Japanese architect who served as an apprentice for several years under Wright. This seemed a brilliant choice, and Sato’s voice remained constant throughout, even as each section added a second narrator of sorts, in the voice of a different woman.

Since so many excellent reviews have been written, I won’t do a typical book review here. I love what Joanna Scott said in her New York Times review of February 1, 2009:

With his rollicking short fiction and with novels that include “The Road to Wellville,” “The Inner Circle,” and “Drop City,” Boyle has been writing his own fascinating unpredictable, alternately hilarious and terrifying fictional history of utopian longing in America. The Women adds a powerful new chapter to this continuing narrative, and it is Boyle at his best.

[“The Road to Wellville,” was a fiction novel about Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, and “The Inner Circle,” took a similar approach to the life of sexologist Alfred Kinsey. I love Scott’s description of these works as a “fictional history of utopian longing in America.”]

Another NYT reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, (January 27, 2009) penned a negative review, saying that Boyle’s “reality-based plots inhibit the author’s exuberant storytelling gifts, tethering his imagination to facts and figures instead of letting it run gloriously free as it does in his best fiction, and they also tend to blunt his sharp-edged satire and flatten out his tactile, super-caffeinated prose.”

That’s exactly what I want to avoid in my effort at “reality-based” fiction. I felt that “tethering” of my imagination when I was writing memoir, but I hope to let any storytelling gifts I might have (meager compared with Boyle’s!) “run gloriously free” with “Cherry Bomb.” I’m definitely paying attention and taking notes as I read the works of the masters, and I do consider Boyle a master. (And I disagree with Kakutani’s review, which ends with calling Boyle’s book “a small, cheesy, paint-by-numbers soap opera….”

As a writer reading to learn more about the craft, I was stunned by Boyle’s vocabulary. I made a list of words I had either never heard or didn’t know the definition of and decided to wait and look them all up when I was finished reading the book. I consider myself to have a fairly broad vocabulary (although I can’t usually finish the crossword puzzles after about Wednesday each week) so I was surprised to see these words that were so alien to me: (I offer a dozen of them here, in context. I’ll leave it to your curiosity to look up the ones you don’t know. And if you know them all, please don’t leave a comment telling me how ignorant I am:-)

“I was willing to work all day and lucubrate till dawn to get it….”
“… my inamorata having left me for a Caucasian who played trombone….”
“…it was raining, gray pluvial streaks painting the intermediate distance like a pointillist canvas….”
“She closed her eyes for the public kiss, the stamp and seal and imprimature of her new master….”
“He seemed to wince at the sobriquet—Daddy Frank, Daddy….”
“…he realized she’d drifted off, her breathing hash and catarrhal, a single globe of moisture caught like a jewel in her right nostril.”
“He was vituperative. Mean. Petty.”
“A framed oil painting—a bucolic lucrastine scene in atrocious taste….”
“… like a seal slipping into an incarnadine sea….”
“… in the cool pellucid sculptor’s light of the high mountains.”
“… in America we honor the old for the passage of their years and the diachronic luxury of their thoughts.”
“… the house was a testament to his parvenu yearnings….”

If I have a negative criticism of the book at all, it might be the way Boyle seemed to change his focus in the final three chapters. I was caught in the web of so many romances up until the arrival of “the help”—Julian and Gertrude Carleton—the Barbadian couple Wright hired to replace the servants who had quit. Not to spoil the ending for those who haven’t read the book, Boyle’s treatment of this dramatic episode in the life of Wright read more like journalistic reporting than the delightful fiction I had been enjoying in the previous 400 pages. Suddenly I lost the train of “the women” and was caught up in these two new characters, only to see them painted through the eyes of Wright’s mistress, Mamah. And then, in the final three pages of the book, we are transported to Paris in order to see these final events through Wright’s third wife, Miriam, who reads about them in a newspaper over breakfast at a Parisian café. It wasn’t my favorite ending, but it’s still an excellent read. [The New York Times called it “mesmerizing,” and The Wall Street Journal said it was “riveting.”]

Most of you are probably tired of reading this by now, but if you’re still interested, here’s an interesting article about Boyle’s house—which happens to be the first Wright-designed house built in California!

These final four photos are of Boyle and his family in the George C. Stewart House.

It’s interesting how he lived in the house for sixteen years (and renovated it) before writing the novel—letting the person of Frank Lloyd Wright speak to him through its walls before putting pen to paper. He did extensive amounts of research during those years (and wrote and published 12 other books in the interim!) and when he was finally ready to write it, he said, of the process, “building a book is like building a house.” Having built a house back in 1993-1995, and now making my fourth effort at writing a book, I can definitely see the parallel. Both projects are definitely labors of love!

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