Few authors so easily disassemble the American dream as T.C. Boyle. Over the course of 13 novels, he has made it a signature move to take the core tenets of our identity—the right to define your sense of place, to own and control the land beneath your feet—and dissect them, move the pieces around and put them back together however he likes. This theme returns in his new novel, the surprisingly restrained San Miguel.

Boyle first wrote about California’s Channel Islands in his novel When the Killing’s Done (2011), a contentious story of environmentalists battling over the lives of animals. The backdrop might be similar, but San Miguel is driven less by conflict and more by the emotions of three real historical women.

In 1888, Marantha’s husband Will brings her to the island with the promise of warm Californian air to help soothe her violent consumption. What she finds instead is a moldy house that smells of sheep, terrible storms and the interminable ennui of forced exile. Two years later, Marantha’s adopted teenage daughter, Edith, desperately seeks a way off the island and will stop at nothing to return to civilization. In 1930, the care of the sheep falls to newlyweds Elise and Herbie, who find romance and freedom in their seclusion. However, World War II is a constant, growing threat to their 12 peaceful years as King and Queen of San Miguel.

If Boyle’s past works have chuckled and made glib asides—he was once dubbed an “adventurer among the potholes and pratfalls of the American language” by the L.A. TimesSan Miguel simply breathes. Stripped of Boyle’s characteristic irony and comedy, San Miguel allows human frailty to stand, Ahab-like, in stark contrast to a hostile environment. Readers will find within San Miguel a gentler touch, a reticent style capable of rendering a reader speechless with its quiet beauty.

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