The Women (T.C. Boyle)

T.C. Boyle - The Women (paperback)I finished reading The Women by T.C. Boyle a while ago but did not have time to write a proper blog post since. I have read quite a few books since but I enjoyed The Women so much that I remember it quite well. It is definitely not the kind of book that you forget after reading a few more paperbacks.

I was first introduced to T.C. Boyle’s work by a librarian friend who advised me to read The Tortilla Curtain. A great book, with some of Boyle’s regular features: great vocabulary, very refined language and structure yet highly flowing and readable. I then tried to read Budding Prospects but couldn’t get past the first twenty pages: I didn’t understand clearly what was happening and the few dialogs were like mysteries to me. I gave it up, and wondered if that was the end of Boyle for me or if I should try another book. Later, as I was browsing second hand books at Shakespeare & Co, I found Drop City: the price was low so I thought “oh well”. I then read it super fast, given it’s a pretty thick book. Boyle’s take on the whole hippie thing is terribly refreshing: so-called freedom and free love, yeah, but the women are still cooking everyday.

I heard of The Women when it was published and planned to read it. A year before, author Nancy Horan wrote Loving Frank, which I had tried to borrow at the library but it was always checked out and putting a hold on it is complicated for me as I’m not sure I’ll be able to pick up the book. Anyway that non-read was my first idea of the man who was Frank Lloyd Wright. Or his love life.

The Women is an account of his life focusing on the women he loved. The story is told from the point of view of one of his many apprentices, Sato. He “writes” an introduction to each part. The chronology is reversed: we start with Olgivanna Milanoff, his last conquest, then on to Maude Miriam Noel, and the last chapter is about Mamah Borthwick Cheney, who was not his first wife (that was Kitty) but clearly his first love. We know from the start that Mamah will die, murdered by a servant. The reverse chronology doesn’t do much for suspense but Boyle is such a gifted writer that our interest is maintained throughout the whole book.

1. His last love, Olgivanna Milanoff, a Montenegrin dancer (though she hates being reduced to just a “dancer”). He meets her at the opera, it seems like all he thinks about her is that she’s pretty. She comes to live with him, taking her daughter she had from a previous husband. They’ll manage to get married but not immediately as Wright is not yet divorced from Miriam, who makes it hell for them. Olgivanna seemed to me like a terribly uninteresting woman. It reads like she has no personality at all. She used to be in a kind of cult, and involved with the guru. All she does is worship men (Wright can be considered a guru as well, given the amount of worshipping he induces – from his women as well as from his many apprentices and admirers). Before they can get married, Wright takes her to Taliesin (his “home” in Wisconsin, one of his architectural masterpieces), but since he doesn’t want the press to know he’s involved with another woman, he makes her work in the kitchen to deceive people into thinking that she’s just an employee (and that won’t work anyway). So basically he makes her work like a slave and she doesn’t seem to mind it at all. She loves him and that’s it. God, I couldn’t stand that woman!

2. Maude Miriam Noel, so-called artist. “Belle from Memphis”, lived in Paris and thinks that makes her oh-so-original and interesting. She’s the “true star of The Women” (Washington Times) as she has a whole chapter to herself but also appears a lot in the other two parts. I couldn’t stand her either. She’s what we would now call a fucking bitch! She’s self-centered, pretentious and supposed to be an artist but doesn’t seem to work a lot (or at all). She is clearly interested in Wright only because he’s talented and famous (also the sex was good). But he’s too self-centered as well, and the relationship won’t work because she doesn’t get enough attention from him. Their differences make for some really juicy and funny parts in the book. Wright is said many times to love plain and simple food, but Miriam likes French refined dishes: there’s this meal she has prepared that he won’t eat because it’s too refined for his countryman tastebuds. Also when she has visiting cards printed with her name written big that he will refuse to use because he doesn’t like the design! She’s also the one to call him names when she’s angry. Some of them are pretty much true: “the little man”! Wright was short, a mama’s boy and not very brave. Though Miriam is a bitch, she’s the only one who really sees through his poses and doesn’t worship him blindly.

3. Mamah Borthwick Cheney, “proto-feminist”, translator. “She’s the impetus for the creation of Taliesin” but is Boyle’s “least fully drawn woman among the three” (Houston Chronicle). We don’t really know why she’s attracted to Wright. Their love affair is not really explained: yes, they love each other terribly, she’s maybe Wright’s first and last true love, but we don’t get to know why. It gets weirder when she’s murdered and Wright moves on pretty quickly (enter Miriam).

About Frank Lloyd Wright: well, there’s not much about him. Of course he’s everywhere in the book but in the end you don’t know really know him. He is “a demigod, a figure around whom people revolve and worship” (Washington Times) but the people (the women and apprentices) don’t seem to know why they adore him so much. He’s pretty much hateful in my opinion, always so sure of himself: “he does believe himself to be “the world’s greatest architect” and thus immune to rules of behavior “for other people, ordinary people, people who had neither insight nor originality”" (Houston Chronicle). What kind of woman loves a man like this?!

In the end, “The Women is more first-class melodrama than incisive biography” (Washinton Times) but what a book! If this is melodrama then Boyle is definitely good at it. I was really caught up in the story and had strong feelings towards the characters, whether I liked them or not. Once again Boyle’s ornate vocabulary made for a delicious read. I highly recommend it. I think I’ll read Horan’s account of Wright’s relationship with Mamah later, when I no longer think so much about The Women, but I guess it’s going to take a while! At least by that time it’ll be available at the library…

Out of the Shelter (David Lodge)

Out of the ShelterDavid Lodge is one of my favourite authors. Every book of his I’ve read I have enjoyed thoroughly. The first was Changing Places. A revelation. I read it at a time when I had difficulties to read: I couldn’t concentrate and could never muster enough interest to finish a single book. This I read from cover to cover in very few sittings. The characters were very engaging. The structure of the book felt revolutionary to me, the story was lively and humour was everywhere. I remember laughing out loud from the very first page. David Lodge instantly made my top ten and, fluctuating as it is, he is still there now. Later I read Thinks… which I enjoyed just as much, even though I had got used to Lodge’s style and was not so surprised. Next came the follow up to Changing Places, Small World, which was a bit of a let down: it was not as good as Changing Places, some events were too unlikely and its length didn’t do it justice. Therapy was good and it made me discover that Lodge could be melancholy as well as uproariously funny. Which more or less announced his latest book, Deaf Sentence. That was a wonderful read. At the time I thought it was his first truly autobiographical story: the hero is going deaf and his father’s health if of great concern to him. I had read in articles that Lodge had written from his own experience of going deaf and that his father had died not too long before. All this was confirmed during a reading he did at the American Library in Paris in September 2008.

But at the time I hadn’t read Out of the Shelter. This book having been published nearly forty years ago now, I couldn’t find much information on it, apart from some reviews dating back to 1984 when the book was republished. The most complete and trustworthy information is indeed the afterword to the 1984 edition written by Lodge himself. There he explains what’s autobiographical about his novel and what’s not.

Out of the Shelter is basically a Bildungsroman about a young boy, Timothy, born a few years before WW2. The first part is about his life in London during the Blitz, told from his point of view, which is that of a five year-old. His world is narrow and his view on the war is very patriotic. Timothy has a much older sister, Kath, who lives in Germany where she works for the American army. In the second part of the book, Kath offers Timothy to come to Heidelberg for three weeks during summer. Timothy hesitates because he’s never been further than the English seaside and is scared of going so far away on his own. But his boring and solitary holidays with his working-class parents finally push him to accept the offer and go to Germany. There he will awaken, both emotionally and intellectually. American-occupied Germany is full of wonders: no rationning, and Kath and her American friends lead a glamorous life, full of parties, restaurants, drives in sports cars and cocktails. In the end, sixteen year-old Timothy will even find “love” with a young American girl.

I really enjoyed this book. Timothy’s discovery of a larger life is interesting and the writing really reflects the opening of his mind. I also learned about post-war England and the rationing that lasted much longer than in other countries. The life of expat Americans was fascinating, in a shallow way. They didn’t mix with the Germans and lead a comfortable life right under their noses.

I am going to read more books by David Lodge, especially his early ones. They’re always very finely written and yet easy to read: language just flows and the plots are interesting. You should do the same!