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Naturalistic Prose Enlivens ‘San Miguel’

'San Miguel' by T.C. Boyle (Viking Adult)

“Does life go on? It does,” T. C. Boyle writes in his latest novel “San Miguel.” This simple truth unites two families in Boyle’s fictionalized world of San Miguel, an island off the coast of California. The first family is made up of Marantha Waters, her irascible husband Will, and their adopted daughter Edith, who all arrive on the island in 1888. By 1930, the Waters family has come and gone, and the island is occupied by newlywed couple Elise and Herbie Lester. Each family has their own illnesses and scandals to contend with, and through it all they must struggle to find ways of getting their lives to “go on,” through events both mundane and catastrophic. If the reader is willing to forgive a few insufficiently fleshed-out characters and occasionally sluggish pacing, Boyle’s vivid narration and his ability to forge connections between the main characters and the reader make it an overall worthwhile read.

The subject matter in Boyle’s 14th novel focuses on familiar material, especially a natural environment, as his other works. Boyle is adept at writing passages on nature and the elements; in “San Miguel” he describes “the salt tang of the ocean rushing in on the wind” or “the cliffs falling away into the churn of the sea.” These descriptions help fully immerse the reader in the setting of the novel.

Boyle’s focus on familial relationships, as well as his penchant for showing families in the same location over different time periods, is a tactic he used to great effect in his novel “World’s End.” Here, too, he excels at scrutinizing the interactions of husbands and wives; the differences between the Lester and Waters family are used well to emphasize what has changed and remained in the American zeitgeist between 1888 and 1930.

While the thematic content of the novel is largely material that Boyle has explored before, the narrative unfolds in a different pattern. “San Miguel” represents Boyle’s first foray into a third person narration in the realist style as opposed to using the postmodern narrative techniques that have marked his past works. One notable quality of the novel is its slow pacing. There are long portions of Marantha’s and Elise’s stories during which very little occurs to move along the plot. Instances like these are narrative lulls, with pages of characters engaging in repetitive interactions, or storms raging and subsiding in predictable patterns.

Boyle, however, seems to be aware of this. His story itself makes reference to the fact that the characters experience long uneventful stretches of time with nothing happening. It appears, therefore, that Boyle deliberately crafted the pace of the novel in this manner to mirror the pace of the characters’ lives on the island. This may have the effect of allowing the reader to better understand the characters’ lives; alternately, it may alienate them by making the book more difficult to read.

The book is split into three parts, each of which is a fairly straightforward narrative of the life of Marantha, Edith, or Elise. When the book follows aspiring actress Edith, Boyle peppers the story with references to theatre, as when Edith describes a woman who “could have played one of the weird sisters in Macbeth, and without a wig or a touch of greasepaint either.” The portion of the novel that features Elise, an ardent Francophile, has French phrases weaved throughout; in the kitchen she uses “fines herbes,” and one nightmare of a day is described with the equivalent French word “cauchemar.” The subtle uses of particular turns of phrase and euphemisms to describe the world around each featured character allow the reader to become intimatelyw familiar with the central characters, the way they think, and the way they perceive their environment.

Unfortunately, the laser-focus Boyle holds on the three central women causes him to neglect the development of some of the other compelling characters. For instance, the 19th century Waters family employs a young African-American man named Jimmie to help take care of the sheep. Over the course of the story, Jimmie’s relationship with the members of the family becomes fascinatingly complicated. Yet Boyle dedicates very little time to exploring his worldview. In his largest chunk of dialogue, Jimmie tells the Lester family some of the exploits that Edith Waters had after leaving the island. What could have been a promising character thus becomes little more than a narrative device.

Another member of the Waters household is their cheerful housekeeper, Ida. Though Ida becomes deeply entangled in the family’s affairs in significant ways, similarly scant attention is paid to her. It is difficult not to feel as if the author has wasted potential in Ida and Jimmie. He involves them in the story just enough for them to be more than peripheral characters and to generate interest, but he keeps them at such a distance that the promise of these characters feels unfulfilled.

Despite Boyle’s disappointing exploration of a few of his characters, “San Miguel” is an engrossing novel. His attention to detail, talent for bringing the reader close to his characters, and lush descriptions of the island itself make the novel an entertaining read. Boyle creates an impressively intricate literary world on the island of San Miguel, and his artful prose is more than enough to take readers to that island with “the sheep grazing, the waves rolling on the shore and pulling back again.”

—Staff writer C.E. Chiemeka Ezie can be reached at cezie@college.harvard.edu.

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