Book Review: San Miguel by T. C. Boyle

San Miguel by T. C. Boyle

I have read quite a few of T. C. Boyle’s books and I have five of them on my book shelves. When a new one comes out I’m always keen to read it. So I was pleased that San Miguel became available via Netgalley.

While Boyle’s previous book, When the Killing’s Done, was well-written, in the literary style we’re used from him, San Miguel was an easier read, less poetic. Both novels suffer from a good story line, in my opinion, and I fear I have moved Boyle down my list of favorite authors to a maybe-read author. It’s a pity, but this book is not as good as I’ve become to expect from this author.

San Miguel: What it is about

San Miguel is about an island off the Californian coast. The book begins in the 1880s, when Marantha Waters, a consumption sufferer, arrives with her second husband and her adopted daughter on the uninhabited island to look after the 5,000 sheep that live there. Marantha hates it there while her husband loves it. Later, the daughter tries anything to get off the island as her father keeps her there as a maid, working long hours and having no life of her own.

Many years later, in the 1930s, another family lives on the island, again to look after the (much diminished) stock of sheep. These are a young couple who do enjoy working and living there. During the Depression, they are well off on the island, as there is never any lack of food, but during the second world war, their tranquil life threatens to be disturbed both by the enemy Japanese and by the USA government.

San Miguel: What I thought

I loved it how this novel took place on one of the Channel Islands near the Californian coast, because Boyle’s previous book, When the Killing’s Done, also took place there, albeit on a different island. I just love connections between books. Both islands are isolated, populated by animals and very exposed to the weather.

However, there the comparison ends. San Miguel is set a lot earlier than the previous novel, starting in the 1880s. This was a real women’s book in my eyes, probably Boyle’s first. With that I mean that I feel the themes will resonate better with women than with men, who might not be quite so interested in the lives of three different women (at different times) on the isolated island of San Miguel.

I didn’t see the point of this book, unfortunately. Why did we get the stories of three women in three different periods? I didn’t discover an overall story of the novel but rather, three (or at least, two) separate stories about the same island. The beginning was good and reminded me somewhat of The Light Between Oceans in which a couple moves to an island off the Australian coast in the 1920s to look after the lighthouse there. If you liked that book, you might enjoy reading San Miguel. There is the same sense of remoteness, of being reliant on a boat that may or may not arrive at certain times to deliver both goods and some other people to talk to. Also, there is a strong sense of the nature and the effects of the weather on living conditions.

I enjoyed the fact that the couple in the 1930s get to hear the further story of the earlier family, and thus, so does the reader. This explains certain things and gives the earlier story a link to the story in the 1930s.

A redeeming quality for when a story isn’t quite so appealing can be the strength of writing. Alas, I did not think this book was of the same literary standards as Boyle’s previous books. It was not an easy read, but definitely an easier read. Some people who found Boyle’s previous books too heavy going, might like this book better. On the other hand, if you’re used to Boyle’s good quality literary fiction, I believe you may be a little disappointed here.

Not my favorite book by one of my favorite authors!

Rating: 3.5 (out of 5)

Number of pages:

First published: 2012 (Penguin USA)

I got this book: from Penguin via Netgalley

Genre: historical fiction

Other books I’ve read by this author: Tortilla Curtain (5 stars); East is East (4 stars); When the Killing’s Done (4 stars); The Women; Water Music; World’s End

Have you read this book?

Did you enjoy it?


About Leeswammes
I'm owner and editor at In my free time, I read and review books on my two blogs, Leeswammes' Blog and De Boekblogger.

17 Responses to Book Review: San Miguel by T. C. Boyle

  1. I love TC Boyle as well, but unfortunately for some reason I wasn’t approved for this one on NetGalley. I do like the sound of it and hope to get the audio version sometime from the library. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. I haven’t read Boyle yet, although I intend to. Which book would you recommend, Judith?

  3. Suzanne says:

    It is always unfortunate to not enjoy a book, but it stings just a bit more when it is written by a favorite author.

  4. Tesney Ap says:

    I love the setting of this book, but too bad there was not much going on. Good review, Judith 🙂

  5. lindyloumacinitaly says:

    This author is new to me, it is always disappointing when a favourite author fails to deliver quite what one has become used to.

  6. Janneke says:

    I love Historical fiction and I love the author, so in spite of your critical review it is an other one on for my wishlist

  7. Stephanie says:

    This sounds like an interesting setting and premise — it’s a shame this didn’t work for you.

  8. I think I was meant to receive a copy of this book from the publisher, but there was a mixup and I got two copies of another book instead – I think I got the better end of the deal!

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