San Miguel by T C Boyle is the kind of novel that takes an intriguing setting, in this case a windswept island off the coast of California, throws at it a few interesting characters and then sits back to see what happens. There's also a historical element to add some atmosphere.
But really, most of all, it's character all the way, because I guess that's what islands do: they strip away all the appendages of civilized life - the social obligations, fashion, career prospects and class interactions, and so on. What is left is the islanders themselves and how they relate to their immediate families and natural surroundings.
You have to be good with characters to make a novel like this work, and Boyle is supremely good. He copes admirably with writing from a female point of view - in this case three women - over two different periods of history.
The first begins in 1888, when Marantha arrives with her husband, Will, her teenage daughter, Edith, and their Irish servant. The island is Will's idea. Vigorous and determined, he's a veteran of the Civil War, needing a chance to be his own man, optimistic about the potential the island's sheep station offers. He has convinced Marantha to invest the last of her money in the venture, promising the clean air that will cure her tuberculosis.
When cheerful optimism turns to bitter disappointment and worse, Edith is coerced into helping out. But she has her heart set on a more glamorous life. How these two women leave the island drives the plot for the first half of the book.
The rest of the novel concerns Elise's story. She has been swept off her feet by Herbie, who is exuberant and charming, just when she thought she was a spinster for life. It is 1930 and Herbie, too, is traumatized by his wartime experiences, but covers it up with his passion for Elise and for their island adventure. Elise soon becomes immersed in life on the island, and her marriage seems truly blessed, until the outside world and the rumblings of another war start to intrude.
San Miguel may not be the happiest of novels, and it might even put you off the dream of getting away from it all. But this is a terrific story - inventive and captivating, at the same time giving the reader plenty of food for thought. Boyle is an accomplished writer, his prose is both elegant and natural - I shall certainly be seeking out his previous novels.