Published by Viking on September 18, 2012
The most distant of the Channel Islands from the coast of California is rain-soaked, wind-swept, and populated by sheep. In San Miguel, T. Coraghessan Boyle tells the stories of three women who made the island their home. While fans of character-driven historical fiction featuring strong women should be pleased with San Miguel, readers who gravitate to plot-driven fiction will probably find this novel less satisfying than some of Boyle's earlier, more captivating work.
Part one tells Marantha's story. It is a masterful portrayal of a woman struggling to control the dark side of her personality, to adapt gracefully to miserable circumstances while coping with failing health. In the late nineteenth century, Marantha joins her second husband (Will Waters) and adopted daughter (Edith) on San Miguel where, with Marantha's money, Will has purchased a half interest in a sheep farm. Marantha hopes to recuperate from consumption but soon realizes that a rainy, windy island is the wrong setting in which to salvage her health ... or, for that matter, her marriage. To paraphrase The Clash: Will she stay or will she go?
With Marantha, Boyle is at his best, creating a carefully nuanced character and describing her life in powerful terms. Marantha knows she has become "a crabbed miserable thing who said no to everything, to every pleasure and delight no matter how small or meaningless," but that is not the person she wants to be. As only a gifted writer can do, Boyle generates sympathy and understanding for a character whose thoughts and behavior are often spiteful.
Part two shifts the focus to Edith and her frustrated desire to be independent, free from her stepfather's tyranny. Hers is a story of isolation and desperation, of a blossoming woman longing for the company of intellect and social grace ("On a ranch, there are no gentlemen or ladies -- there was just life lived at the level of dressed-up apes tumbled down from the trees"). Boyle encourages the same empathy for Edith as he does for Marantha, although Edith is less complex and, for that reason, less interesting.
Part three begins in 1930. It introduces a woman named Elise who, at 38, is newly married to Herbie Lester. Having never been west of the Hudson, Elise moves to San Miguel with Lester. Unlike her predecessors, Elise manages to make a life that, if not quite normal, is generally satisfying despite Lester's growing detachment from reality. Unlike the first two sections, some chapters in part three drag, adding little to character development while recounting events that are of no significant interest. The story perks up with the encroachment of World War II and a series of dramatic events that foreshadow an inevitable conclusion.
Edith resurfaces in part three as a memory, a tale told by Jimmie, the island's constant resident and the only character to appear in all three sections. While the information Jimmie provides adds welcome continuity, the story of Edith's adult life is disappointingly abbreviated. Elise, on the other hand, is a character in full, but not a particularly vibrant one.
Boyle’s surgical prose slices into his characters, exposing their inner workings. Boyle introduces the setting and characters in short chapters that bear descriptive titles: “The Kitchen,” “The Flock,” “The Wind,” “Jimmie,” and so on. Occasionally they are repeated, creating the sense of characters living parallel lives: “The House” on San Miguel in which Marantha dwells, for instance, is less inviting that “The House” that will become Elise’s home. Jimmie also rates more than one chapter heading, but he is hardly worth the space. The novel belongs to the female characters, not the men.
The novel is aptly named. The island of San Miguel is virtually a character in the novel, fickle and treacherous, beautiful and harsh, challenging its inhabitants with relentless wind and sand. The sense of isolation Boyle creates is vivid.
That the characters are based on real people is perhaps San Miguel's greatest weakness. At its best, the novel creates tension as the characters struggle to survive the perils of nature and the numbness of seclusion. In part three, however, the story falls flat. Boyle's fidelity to the real-world characters, his failure to make Elise and all of the male characters more interesting than they actually were, causes the novel to lose momentum after a strong start. For its sense of history and place, and for Marantha's compelling story, San Miguel is worth reading, but this is far from Boyle's best work.