Saturday, April 20, 2013

San Miguel, by T.C. Boyle

San Miguel is one of the Channel Islands off the southern California coast. According to the fictionalized stories of two real families presented in T.C. Boyle's novel, life there in the 1880s and 1930s was harsh, isolated, and precarious to the health of its residents. The first section of the book is told from the perspective of Marantha, a consumptive woman whose husband, a Civil War veteran, has convinced her that a move to the island will be good for her health. He is so persuasive that she allows him to invest the money she inherited from her first husband in a sheep "ranch" on the island. In reality, however, the living conditions, the wet and windy climate, and the isolation take a tool on her both physically and emotionally (of course, the fact that her husband sleeps with the maid/cook doesn't help either). While it is hard not to empathize with her situation, she has a rather spoiled, whiny persona that is hard to like (the reader on the audio version of the book perhaps may have exacerbated that problem).

In the second section of the book, the focus is on Marantha's teen-age daughter Edith, who wants desperately to escape the island and her stepfather's heavy-handed management of the household. Edith dreams of being an actress and uses her acting skills and beauty to manipulate men, hoping one of them will help her run away. Ultimately, she succeeds and her story ends as she leaves the island.

The third section of the book, set in the 1930s, features Elise, who has recently married Herbie, another war veteran, this time of the Great War. Elise is in her late 30s and never thought she would marry; she is also an Easterner with no previous experience in the West. Yet she takes to life on the island; even when she has two daughters, she adapts and thrives. Her husband, on the other hand, has serious mental health issues. His behavior suggests bipolar disorder, and Elise mentions that he had shell shock after the war, something she clearly does not understand.  His mental health issues and gun collection strongly suggest something bad is going to happen--but who will be hurt provides some suspense.

That suspense is badly needed, as San Miguel is a rather slow and dare I say dull book. Marantha is sick, goes to live on the island, and is unhappy. Edith is forced to live on the island and is unhappy. Elise goes to live on the island and likes it fine. Ho hum.

T. C. Boyle has a sharp wit and is a keen observer of contemporary society. This effort at historical fiction provides no evidence of those strengths.

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