San Miguel by T.C. Boyle (2012)

9780670026241_custom-4c7d5f1c89f73484fc7fdd6a525882653717a1ae-s6-c30I finished this book last night, and I cannot even remember the names of the main characters.  That’s how much I cared about them.  I’ve not read any other books by T.C. Boyle, but I hope the others are of better quality than this one. The premise of the book is interesting. Based on historical data, two families moved to the island of San Miguel off the coast of Santa Barbara—one in the 1880’s and one in the 1930’s—and both raised sheep there.  Both families lived an isolated life, and much of that isolation (which some family members enjoyed and others didn’t) is the theme of their stay on the island.  I was drawn to that aspect of the story.  The problem is that there really isn’t much of a story.  The first half of the book is about the Waters family, made up of an overbearing and verbally abusive husband, a complaining wife suffering from consumption (who is encouraged to live on the island for its fresh air), and their daughter who wants to escape, especially after her mother dies and her father becomes unbearable.  None of the characters is likeable or interesting and the plot doesn’t really build to anything (though Boyle’s descriptions of consumption are well detailed).  The ending of that section drops off with no closure.  The second half of the book, which has little, if any, connection to the first half, focuses on the Lesters, a more interesting family—who at one point becomes known as the “Swiss Family Lester”—but that, too, goes nowhere.  The story hops from one event to another with no clear path or plot development or rising action, and not much character development.  In fact, the father, Herbie Lester, appears to suffer from bipolar disorder—an interesting aspect of his sunny but moody personality that seems like an important detail/character flaw that will lead up to the story’s outcome—but it never actually connects well-enough to the story’s ending. This is a pattern throughout the book.  Boyle’s characters have flaws and quirks just like all humans do, but in good literature, these flaws and quirks should be integral to building the narrative. In the case of San Miguel, it’s as if Boyle happened upon information about two families who lived on a remote island, and he made a historical novel out of the notes and published writing of various family members. But the novel isn’t much more than a recounting of this happened then this happened then this happened. The only characters that stand out as memorable are the island itself, the sheep who live there, and the disease consumption (the archaic name for tuberculosis). Though the island and the sheep both needed much more detail, I was drawn to them more than the characters Boyle attempted to create. But above all, the sputtering bloody cough of Marantha Waters is likely the detail I will remember most about this less-than-memorable book.   Cover image: http://www.npr.org/2012/09/20/161062913/t-c-boyle-s-san-miguel-is-no-island-paradise.

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