Some familiar themes and locales merge in TC Boyle’s San Miguel. A sickly woman, Marantha, retreats to an isolated island, San Miguel, off California coast with her husband, Will; her daughter, Edith, and help, Ida, the daughter of poor Irish immigrants newly arrived in SF for the gold rush for her health. It is 1888. They now own an abandoned sheep farm, which includes a house and sheep. It is a new start for her until she sees the shape of the house and wonders if she made the right decision to spend her last ten thousand dollars on this. So much of this is so familiar in a Boyle novel. When he invents a word, he parenthetically defines it. He is a master storyteller with dry wit and a master’s sense of dramatic timing.
Little adventures fill the first couple of weeks. Adventures all city dwellers experience as they transition to rural rustic farm life especially when isolated on an island, your island. Repairs to buildings, fixing up the house, and exploring the island are the activities. Hearing the barking seals, the bleating sheep (4000 of them), and listening to the night creatures in and around the house complete the acceptance of their new life. Edith is beginning a dance with Jimmie, the little 15-year-old farm hand.
As is usual in a Boyle novel we slowly descend into a place of despair and this happens after the shearers leave. The big build up and wait, the rain, the leaks all give way to the sun and excitement when the shearers finally arrive. Then they leave and it all spirals downward like the water in a toilet. Edith’s mother dies, Ida, pregnant, goes back to her mom. Edith and her stepfather return to the island after she thought she had a life that began at a boarding school in SF. But that all changed and she found herself back o the island with her waiting Caliban. No escape, no choice, no control. She persists and gets away with Bob the sealer. She becomes Inez Deane an actress.
Turn the page and we find ourselves in 1930 with Elise and her new husband Herbie moving into the new house on San Miguel as Jimmie greets them. Will and Jimmie built the new house. Jimmie is the link between the past and the present, the constant, the heartbeat of San Miguel, the last man standing.