On a tiny, desolate, windswept island off the coast of Southern California, two families, one in the 1880s and one in the 1930s, come to start new lives and pursue dreams of self-reliance and freedom. Their extraordinary stories, full of struggle and hope, are the subject of T. C. Boyle’s haunting new novel. Thirty-eight-year-old Marantha Waters arrives on San Miguel on New Year’s Day 1888 to restore her failing health. Joined by her husband, a stubborn, driven Civil War veteran who will take over the operation of the sheep ranch on the island, Marantha strives to persevere in the face of the hardships, some anticipated and some not, of living in such brutal isolation. Two years later their adopted teenage daughter, Edith, an aspiring actress, will exploit every opportunity to escape the captivity her father has imposed on her. Time closes in on them all and as the new century approaches, the ranch stands untenanted. And then in March 1930, Elise Lester, a librarian from New York City, settles on San Miguel with her husband, Herbie, a World War I veteran full of manic energy. As the years go on they find a measure of fulfillment and serenity; Elise gives birth to two daughters, and the family even achieves a celebrity of sorts. But will the peace and beauty of the island see them through the impending war as it had seen them through the Depression? Rendered in Boyle’s accomplished, assured voice, with great period detail and utterly memorable characters, this is a moving and dramatic work from one of America’s most talented and inventive storytellers.
Off the coast of California lies the Channel Islands – a harsh, rainy, hilly piece of land suitable for raising sheep. It is called San Miguel. The author weaves a haunting tale about three women who lived their lives, or at least part of their lives, on the desolate little island. Readers who pick up this book will soon realize that it is a character driven novel, where the author delves deep into the psyche of each woman portrayed. The details and inner thoughts and aspirations of these fascinating characters takes precedence over the plot. It is important to understand this so that readers will know why the plot seems slow. For this novel, it is important to relish the journey and revelations of the strong female characters.
The novel is broken into three parts. The first tells the story of Marantha whose struggle is her fast failing health with consumption (tubercoulosis) and her dislike for the island upon which her husband has taken her to earn a living as a sheep farmer. To make matters worse, the environment only worsens her health issues. This often brings out the worst in her. That author gives us a masterful insight into this fascinating woman and her thoughts as her life draws to an uncontrollable end.
The next part of the novel is about Edith, Marantha’s step daughter. Like her stepmother, Edith dislikes life on the island and is desperate to break free and seek her own independence. Her youth fuels her desire for society and friends and all the occasions that come with it. Like Marantha, despite Edith’s many failings, the author manages to evoke great sympathy and understanding.
The last part of the story focuses on a woman called Elise who finds life on the isolated island enjoyable, unlike the other two women. Her story takes us into the 1940’s and a series of events that enhance the story’s conclusion.
The author’s strength is most definitely his ability to take us deep into the mindset and emotions of his characters. Although the story is fascinating and set within an interesting setting and era, the pace, at times, can become rather tedious if the reader is not first prepared. Nevertheless, this an interesting read and recommended for those who prefer character driven novels.