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Originally published Friday, September 21, 2012 at 5:31 AM

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'San Miguel': T.C. Boyle's novel of dashed dreams on a remote island

T.C. Boyle's new novel, "San Miguel," tells the story of two families whose aspirations founder on the beaches of San Miguel, one of California's Channel Islands. Boyle will discuss his work Monday as part of the Seattle Arts & Lectures series.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

T.C. Boyle

The author of "San Miguel" will discuss his work as part of the Seattle Arts & Lectures series, 7:30 p.m. Monday, Meany Theater, University of Washington, Seattle; $5-$30 (206-621-2230 or
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Two families answer a remote island's siren song in T.C. Boyle's terribly sad "San Miguel" (Viking, 367 pp., $27.95).

This historical novel — following the Waterses, from 1888, and the Lesters, from 1930 — was inspired by Boyle's research for his last novel, "When the Killing's Done," chronicling an environmental battle on California's Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara. He discovered material on the real-life sheep-ranching Waters and Lesters of 14-square-mile San Miguel.

Their fictionalized stories are told in three parts, chronologically, from the perspectives of the women. Consumptive Marantha Waters has given her Civil War veteran husband, Will, the last of her savings for a new venture after Will convinces her the fresh air of San Miguel will be just the cure. Marantha's adoptive daughter, Edith, a spoiled teen, at first enjoys the freedom of roaming the island and fantasizes that she's the heroine of her own "Wuthering Heights" or "The Tempest," but she is soon serving as Cinderella to her domineering stepfather. Optimistic, can-do Elise Lester, a New York City librarian, is overjoyed to be a first-time bride at 38 and fully embraces life on San Miguel as an equal partner to her soul mate, Herbie, a WWI veteran who seeks to soothe his frayed nerves amid the island's solitude.

Elise's third of "San Miguel" is the most engaging and would have made a fine stand-alone novel. She sets out for the island during the Depression with Herbie with the mindset "... this was the real life they were going into, the natural life, the life of Thoreau and Daniel Boone, simple and vigorous and pure." Former debutante Elise takes well to the hard work and simple lifestyle, learning to make gourmet meals on a woodstove; raising and schooling two daughters; and lovingly managing the physically and psychically wounded Herbie's alternately energetic and blue moods. The bombing of Pearl Harbor encroaches on their fragile happiness.

Edith and Marantha are less sympathetic. Edith, who dreams of a life in the theater, is cruel and imperious. Marantha, with a well-off New England upbringing, immediately realizes the move to San Miguel is a bad idea. She is shocked that the dreary structure she assumed was a barn or bunkhouse is to be her home. She'd imagined that San Miguel would be balmy, but her tuberculosis grows worse on the foggy, rainy, bitterly windy island. Descriptions of her violent coughing fits, with expulsions of phlegm and blood, are frequent and graphic.

But the prolific Boyle redeems himself by vividly evoking the natural beauty of San Miguel, now part of the Channel Islands National Park, making it alluring despite the Waterses' and Lesters' cautionary tales.

"... the cliffs falling away to the churn of the sea, Prince Island rising out of the waves like the humped back of a whale — and whales, too, actual whales, spouting right out there in the harbor. There were the caves up on Eagle Cliff with their Indian pictographs worked into the rock, the elephant seals stretched out on the beach like enormous stuffed sausages, the caliche forest with the haunting twisted shapes of its petrified trees. Wildflowers. Open space."

Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi is

a Seattle Times desk editor.

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