San Miguel

By T.C. Boyle

(Viking, $27.95, 384 pages)

Who is this author?

Born in New York, now a Californian, T.C. Boyle has written 13 novels, including “World’s End,” which won the 1987 PEN/Faulkner Award; “Drop City, a National Book Award finalist, and the bestseller “The Women.” He won a PEN/Malmud Award for Excellence in the short story and has published nine collections.  You may have read his stories in The New Yorker, GQ, Esquire, McSweeney’s, and Playboy. And yes, he also goes by T. Coraghessen (pronounced “kuh-RAGG-issun”) Boyle, having changed his middle name from John when he was 17. The “T” is for Thomas.

What is this book about?

It’s about California dreamin,’ perhaps, but certainly not “that warm California sun.” Set on San Miguel, one of the cold, rainy, windswept Channel Islands off the northern California coast, this novel is somewhat of a prequel to Boyle’s 2011 “When the Killings Done,” also set on those stark shores. Based on historical fact, it is the story of two families who come to live there, about 50 years apart. In 1888, one family arrives to run a sheep farm in the hopes that the ailing wife will be cured by the fresh winds. That’s not likely, and the island also becomes a kind of isolated Alcatraz for their adopted teenage daughter, who wants to escape and become an actress. In 1930, a New York librarian and her restless World War I veteran husband try their luck on San Miguel, with rather more success. Rich with detail and description, the book offers a slice of California history unfamiliar to most readers and a penetrating look at the inner lives of three women.

Why you’ll like it:

Known for his formidable ego, zany humor, equally zany choice of clothing, unusual characters and his deep interest in nature’s unpredictability and mercilessness and man’s often unwitting but nevertheless dire effect on the environment, Boyle is a challenging author. He’s fascinated by anti-heroes and remote locales, and can explore the female mind with as much skill as he uses to describe those harsh, yet entrancing, landscapes.

What others are saying: 

“A saga of women, three women brought to the island by men…Boyle has carved out a beautiful, damp, atmospheric novel, sharp and exacting…[his] spirited novels are a reckoning with consequence laced with humor, insight, and pathos,” says Terry Tempest Williams in The San Francisco Chronicle.

“The story of two families who lived on the windiest and wildest of the Channel Islands…the layering of these isolated lives, the archeology of human habitation, the different responses to self-sufficiency make this one of the most satisfying novels in Boyle’s canon,” says Susan Salter Reynolds in Los Angeles Magazine.

 “In T.C. Boyle’s San Miguel, two strong women generations apart are seduced and mistreated by the same powerful entity – not a man but a starkly beautiful, barely inhabited island off the California coast…Boyle portrays the heartbreaking toll San Miguel takes on these couples in a novel as beguiling as the island itself,” says O The Oprah Magazine

Says Ron Charles in The Washington Post:

“Theatrical as he appears in those outrageous shirts and jackets, in his fiction Boyle never steals the spotlight from his characters, from what they’re wrestling with. His previous novel, “When the Killing’s Done” (2011), took place on the Channel Islands off the coast of California and managed to make the complex issue of environmental reclamation tremendously exciting. His new novel, San Miguel, …again takes place on one of the Channel Islands, but the story’s tone and pace are entirely different. Instead of violently dramatizing a contemporary debate, San Miguel is an absorbing work of historical fiction based on the lives of two real families who resided on San Miguel Island in the 19th and 20th centuries.”

Ripe with exhaustively researched period detail, Boyle’s epic saga of struggle, loss, and resilience (after “When the Killing’s Done)” tackles Pacific pioneer history with literary verve. The author subtly interweaves the fates of Native Americans, Irish immigrants, Spanish and Italian migrant workers, and Chinese fishermen into the Waters’ and the Lesters’ lives, but the novel is primarily a history of the land itself, unchanging despite its various visitors and residents, and as beautiful, imperfect, and unrelenting as Boyle’s characters,” says Publishers Weekly.

“This latest novel from Boyle…portrays two families living and working on barren San Miguel Island off the coast of California. In 1888 Marantha Waters leaves her comfortable life on mainland California and moves out to San Miguel with her adopted daughter and husband, a steely Civil War veteran convinced that he’ll have success sheep ranching on the island. Marantha is seriously ill, but instead of breathing the clean, restorative air she expected, she must live in a drafty, moldy shack in a damp environment where the sun rarely shines. Years later, in 1930, Elise Lester, newly wed at 38, moves to San Miguel with her husband, Herbie, a World War I veteran. Though Herbie has his highs and lows, they are happy, and they have two daughters. The outside world learns of their pioneering ways, and they achieve a celebrity Herbie hopes will translate into additional income. Then World War II arrives, and with war in the Pacific, their insular island location may no longer be a refuge… In this absorbing work, Boyle does an excellent job of describing the desperation and desolation of life on the island. Readers can almost feel the cold and damp seeping into their bones,” says Library Journal.

When is it available?

“San Miguel” is expected to be on the shelves of the Downtown Hartford Public Library as of Oct. 24.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Comments are closed.