The WomenThe Women by T.C. Boyle

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

a friend lent me this book, for which i am glad–i’m glad i didn’t spend any money on it.

in this book, the purported aim is to tell the story of frank lloyd wright’s many wives and mistresses from their point of view. yay! sounds pretty interesting, doesn’t it? but alas, what we readers get instead is a long, dreary, misogynist fairy tale in which all the women eventually turn out to be hags.

ok, now, fair questions: maybe all those women really were hags? maybe wright just picked ’em unstable, immature, vengeful, neurotic, preposterously narcissistic, unloving to their own children? but no, i don’t think so. because even women who are unstable, immature etc have other dimensions to their characters than a periscope-like focus on one man.

women have friends, they have birth families, they have interests, they have work (in that time, often endless and unpaid), they have children. they have a life of the mind, however different a woman’s mind might have been before they were even permitted to vote. and yet boyle seems quite uninterested in any of these aspects of the women who captured wright’s affections.

first up in the novel is wright’s last wife, olgivanna. she is the prototypical Earth Mother, or she ends up being so. next is miriam, the harpy. then we get mamah, who is first the lover, and then the object of grief. and finally, a little bit of kitty, wright’s first wife, with him for 20 years and mother of the majority of his children.

so. wright first woos and then dumps each in her turn (with the exception of olga, who is wooed but not dumped, but widowed).

i have no idea or comment on the historical accuracy of this book, by the way–i am approaching it as it was written, as a piece of fiction.

so! what’s up with the incendiary misogyny charge? it’s this: either the cardboard narrator (and boyle is cleverly exposing the misogyny of the times) or the writer himself has some serious ill-feeling about women, and it shows. it shows in the portrayals of the women, and it shows in the juxtaposition of highly-charged emotional moments with trivia.

the women are portrayed as deeply icky. miriam, to whom the largest chunk of the book is given, is batshit. as well as vengeful, hateful, raging. and olga, who gets her share of rage, rage, rage. mamah is also pretty rageful, although she gets off lightest. even kitty, inoffensive kitty, is not ever full of righteous anger at a man who stepped out on her and then left her with children and tons of unpaid bills, but she is full of rage.

no woman, however mistreated, is ever full of righteous anger. as if their anger is never justified, because, well, he’s a genius and therefore beyond the judgement of a mere wife. however often he steps out, he’s never betraying the most intimate of trusts, he’s just swept away with love. however often he sloughs off all the cares of a very large household, he’s just off being a genius in his studio. even when he finds his own children an irritating bore, it’s just, well, his genius.

it was a weird experience, reading this book: sort of like watching a train wreck, car by car by car, in slow motion. you really don’t want to look, but you can’t stop watching. nobody in this book comes off as a decent human being. in truth, nobody comes off as a real human being. ’cause real women are not this unidimensional, and even the most batshit narcissist occasionally has a kind thought and a friend or two.

ah! i’ve got it: the bechdel test. the book utterly fails the bechdel test. named after Alison Bechdel, who proposes that movies be judged, in addition to other criteria, by these:

1. It has to have at least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man

this novel (and how can you do this in an entire novel?) fails, fails, fails.