Author T.C. Boyle creates another memorable world for readers in his latest novel “San Miguel” (Viking, 367 pages, $27.95).
This is the 14th novel for Boyle, a rock star alumnus of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in addition to nine collections of short stories. He shows no signs of aging.
This novel, like his others, is a strong story, informed with remarkable writing, rich atmosphere and a world-class imagination. The book is loosely based on two diaries kept by women trapped — or uplifted — by their lives on San Miguel, an island across the channel from Santa Barbara, Calif.
The island’s constants: raging weather, sheep, isolation.
Of the three women who form the book’s three sections, Marantha is the most sympathetic and the one who best captures the power and originality of Boyle’s writing.
She comes to the island in 1888 with her daughter and a brutish second husband. He has used the last of her money to buy into a sheep-raising operation. Accustomed to a fairly refined life, they arrive to find a claptrap home with leaks, mold and mice. It smells. It has no music, running water or electricity. He loves it. She hates it.
Marantha is dying of consumption. Anyone who ever imagined tuberculosis as a romantic illness will quickly lose that illusion as Boyle traces Marantha’s declining health.
Marantha — you wonder if the name is a combination of Mary and Martha, a nod to the biblical suffering and service of the book’s women — also worries about Edith, her headstrong daughter.
The second section of the novel follows Edith in her efforts to escape the island, by any means necessary.
The third section follows Elise, an “old maid” librarian swept off her East Coast feet by a traveling salesman who speaks French. They marry, and he moves them to the island in the 1930s. His manic-depression soon exhibits itself, but Elise watches and supports. Of the three women, only Elise is able to find happiness on San Miguel. It’s hard-won, and it doesn’t last, but it’s a triumph nonetheless.