Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
With his fourteenth novel, San Miguel, T.C. Boyle cements his reputation as a master of story-telling, whisking modern readers away from our hectic, digitally-dominated lives to a time and place that was simple and authentic, where even a phonograph was a luxury. It is 1888, and Will Waters has brought his wife Maranatha and step-daughter Edith to the island of San Miguel, where they plan to make a living as sheep farmers. Marantha has invested her inheritance of ten thousand dollars – no small sum in the late nineteenth century. She agreed to the venture in part due to her tuberculosis, as the air in the Channel Islands is supposedly good for her condition. Despite Will’s enthusiasm, Marantha and her daughter Edith quickly determine that life on the island of San Miguel is a virtual hell.
Living on an unpopulated island off the coast of Southern California might sound like an ideal situation. Ocean views are all around, and across the channel are the soaring mountains above Santa Barbara. But from the moment Marantha arrives on San Miguel, she wants to leave. Boyle vividly describes the treeless island “raked with wind, an island fourteen miles square set down in the heaving froth of the Pacific Ocean, and there was nothing on it but the creatures of nature and an immense rolling flock of sheep that were money on the hoof.”
Indeed, the harsh elements of nature serve as a main character of the novel, but nature is not Marantha’s main problem. Rather, it’s her husband Will, a captain during the Civil War, and a stubborn tyrant who works his family like their hired hands, who, to Marantha’s horror, also eat at their dinner table, as if their family was of the working class and not society people. Marantha loathes Will for bringing her out to a “desolate place where there was no society and no affection or manners or common human decency and where the disease can have its way with her.” She worries for her daughter Edith, who transforms from a proper girl to an uncouth wild-child. As she ages, Edith longs to become an actress, and tries to escape from her father and the dreadful island at every opportunity.
Fast forward to the 1930s, and suddenly the island of San Miguel becomes the ideal place it initially sounded like. Herbie and Elise Lester are now rulers of San Miguel, tenants for a millionaire who owns the sheep operation on the island. Unlike Will Waters, Herbie is a happy-go-lucky man madly in love with his wife. There is a lot of cleaning and cooking and work for Elise, but life on the island, away from society, takes on a mythic, fairytale quality. This idea of a real fairytale is exactly what the press made the Lesters’ life out to be, when reporters turned the Lesters’ life on the island into a media frenzy. In the mid 1930s, the middle of the Great Depression, people wanted to read about a family living an isolated existence in the peace of nature. According to Elise, people wanted “a case of escapism, people beaten down by the depression and fearful of the coming war and only wanting to rest their eyes and let their minds roam free over the idyll the papers presented, all the sweat and toil and scraping and scrimping conveniently left out of the scenario.” It takes seeing herself through the dreams of others for Elise to understand the lie of her family’s existence—a lie covered up by Herbie’s persistent positive enthusiasm. When her daughters ask, “Mother, what’s a coin? Mother, what’s a car? Mother, what’s a pig? Is it a kind of sheep?” Elise knows that their isolated life might not be the best in which to raise the girls.
In a surprisingly straight but successful work of historical fiction, Boyle writes like a whirlpool, slowly sucking you in, spinning you around and around as you sink deeper into the story. But it’s the prevalent yet inexplicit message that really matters. By depicting the historical lives of two families who made the same piece of land their home, but had completely opposite experiences, Boyle is saying that it doesn’t matter where one lives; place is neutral, it’s our attitude and behavior towards one another that make life heaven or hell.
Viking, September 2012