A novel’s setting can be as important as any of the characters who populate the story. The island on which the action in SAN MIGUEL, T.C. Boyle’s latest, takes place --- with its smells of sea wrack and salt spray and the “pocked volcanic cliffs fringed with a poor sort of desert vegetation” --- is integral to the sagas of the two families that live there over the book’s 54 years. And Boyle’s loving depiction of this now-uninhabited island is among the novel’s greatest pleasures.
Based on real events, SAN MIGUEL is comprised of two independent short novels. The first, set from 1888 to 1890, is the tale of the Waters family. Marantha Waters suffers from consumption. Her husband, Will, suggests that they move to San Miguel from their comfortable home in Santa Barbara. The reason he gives is that the climate will improve Marantha’s health. But his real motivation is that he has always dreamed of running a sheep farm. When the opportunity to do so presents itself on San Miguel, Will convinces his wife to give him her last $10,000 so that they can begin a new life on the island.
"The first 200 pages of SAN MIGUEL are wonderful. Boyle’s depiction of the Waters clan is as compelling as anything he’s ever written. His prose is, as always, economical and precise."
Marantha, Will, and Marantha’s adopted 14-year-old daughter, Edith, take a schooner to the island on New Year’s Day, 1888. From the outset, it’s clear that life will be difficult. The episodic narrative chronicles Edith’s adoption of a lamb she finds bleating in the middle of the night, Marantha’s adjustment to a leaking bedroom ceiling and farm hands who crack sexist jokes during meals, and Will’s changing personality. As Marantha’s health worsens, Will’s frustrations manifest themselves in ways that are almost as devastating as his wife’s illness.
The tension mounts beautifully th