All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

San Miguel – T.C. Boyle

on October 29, 2012

San Miguel
T.C. Boyle
Bloomsbury Publishing
2012, 367p
Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury ANZ

In 1888, Marantha arrives with her husband and adopted teenage daughter onto the island of San Miguel, off the California coast. They have just poured the last of her money into becoming partners running sheep on the island and are here to take up a position as the residents and caretakers of the vast flock. The other partner has done his time and has sold a half share in order to be able to head back to the mainland. Marantha wasn’t expecting much, but even she is hopelessly depressed by what she finds when she arrives – the homestead is little more than a bare wooden shack where sand and mould get in and penetrate everything. The island is bare, rugged with a wind that howls and rain that can lash for days. Marantha suffers from consumption and she expected to find a warmer, dryer climate in order to help her lungs. As the damp goes on, her condition worsens.

Some 42 years later in 1930, it is another bride travelling to take up residence on San Miguel. Elizabeth has just married Herbie and he’s been employed as the sheep caretaker on San Miguel, looking after the flock. Elizabeth’s job isn’t major, she keeps her husband and the worker fed and makes sure the shearer’s are also plied with food the few weeks a year they show up to get the sheep done. Elizabeth adapts well to the island and her role on it, birthing and raising children there. They are happy, until the threat of war looms and the Pacific becomes a target.

San Miguel opens with Marantha arriving by boat to San Miguel. She’s not seen the place before, nor has she heard very many accurate details about what to expect upon arrival. There isn’t even a road well developed enough for a cart to get her up to the house – she has to sit on a chair lashed to a sled, pulled by a donkey. Ill from what was called consumption in the day (tuberculosis), Marantha needs a hot, dry climate as her attacks are exacerbated by damp weather and San Miguel turns out to have plenty of that. It can rain for days and the island is often enveloped in fog making Marantha’s trips outside very unpleasant. Even though she is clearly struggling with the climate and also her role on the island, it seems as though her husband is uninterested. He makes no effort to see to her comfort, nor does he think that perhaps she might be better off somewhere else. Despite the fact that it was Marantha’s money that bankrolled this little adventure, her feelings are not taken into consideration. Nor are the feelings of her adopted daughter Edith.

Abruptly the story changes and after a brief narration by Marantha’s daughter Edith that seems to establish little other than the fact that Marantha’s husband is a bully, we then we jump forward to 1930’s and are introduced to Elizabeth. She’s in her late 30s and is a new bride. She and her husband Herbie are making the journey out to San Miguel to be the new caretakers of the flock. Herbie has already seen it but as Elizabeth says, she hadn’t been west of the Hudson before this little adventure. Elizabeth is later to the island, there’s a new house and some work has been done to create a path from the sea to it, but ultimately it’s still the same harsh conditions. She is a tough woman, not burdened by illness, not even fazed at the idea of being pregnant on the island, with the only way to get back to the mainland a lengthy boat trip. I admired her for that! I’ve had 2 children and the last one took me 3hrs exactly from first contraction to him being born. I don’t have the luxury of time when it comes to having babies and I’d be taking myself off the island nice and early because both of mine have also been born before their due dates.

Despite my trepidation about being pregnant in such a remote location, I did find it very easy to put myself in Marantha and Elizabeth’s place. I’m a girl who likes, not luxury, but comforts, I suppose. I wouldn’t like such a remote place with often-dismal weather leading to mould and damp. You couldn’t even keep books there as the mould ruined them! For someone suffering from Marantha’s condition, it was almost a disaster and I found myself constantly irritated by her husband. I suppose it was a different time and the women mostly just did what they were told and allowed the men to make the decisions, but sometimes I just wanted to see her pack herself a bag and take herself off the island and back to the mainland when the next supply ship arrived.

I have to admit, when we switched to the second story, I wondered what the point of the first story had been. There ended up being a lot of unanswered questions from that first part of the book and even though a character who links the first part of the story with the second part answered some late in the book, I still felt like I was left hanging in certain ways and I didn’t really understand what the connection was between Marantha and Elizabeth. Or if there was supposed to even be one and maybe I was spending too much time searching for something that just didn’t exist. I expected more of a connection later in the book something that made Marantha’s story more important or crucial to what happened with Elizabeth and Herbie but it seemed that I was clutching at straws. Although I was able to enjoy both Marantha’s and Elizabeth’s sections in the book, as well as the very brief section that is devoted to Marantha’s daughter Edith, I feel as though the book would’ve been better served if something had happened in order to make these parts a cohesive whole. I felt that was something that was really lacking and confused me a little. It’s almost like it was 2 books.


Book #217 of 2012


One response to “San Miguel – T.C. Boyle

  1. shelleyrae @ Book'd Out says:

    I felt the same Bree, the connection wasn’t their to make this book whole.

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