“In 1940, fifteen year-old Margot Fiske arrives on the shores of Monterey Bay with her eccentric entrepreneur father. Margot has been her father’s apprentice all over the world, until an accident in Monterey’s tide pools drives them apart and plunges her head-first into the mayhem of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.
Steinbeck is hiding out from his burgeoning fame at the raucous lab of Ed Ricketts, the biologist known as Doc in Cannery Row. Ricketts, a charismatic bohemian, quickly becomes the object of Margot’s fascination. Despite Steinbeck’s protests and her father’s misgivings, she wrangles a job as Ricketts’s sketch artist and begins drawing the strange and wonderful sea creatures he pulls from the waters of the bay. Unbeknownst to Margot, her father is also working with Ricketts. He is soliciting the biologist’s advice on his most ambitious and controversial project to date: the transformation of the Row’s largest cannery into an aquarium. When Margot begins an affair with Ricketts, she sets in motion a chain of events that will affect not just the two of them, but the future of Monterey as well.”
Well, this book was certainly not what I expected, and unfortunately, I don’t mean that in a good way this time. From top to bottom, from plot to characters, there was very little about this book that I enjoyed. My disappointment is especially keen given that the book is about an area that I absolutely love: Monterey Bay, one of the biggest conservation success stories in the world.
Let me start by saying that I feel really misled by the novel’s premise as written. The tagline that precedes the above description says that the book is “set around the creation of the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium–and the last days of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row”. None of that is really correct. No part of the novel deals with the actual creation of the aquarium–there is a completely fictitious move in that direction during the portion of the novel set in 1940, but all it mentions is the possible purchase of the building. The rest of the novel, set in 1998, is almost a decade and a half after the aquarium opens its doors. Also, Cannery Row hung on until the mid-1950s, when the fisheries collapsed and the canneries closed, so the novel doesn’t happen during that period either.
This is, unfortunately, one of the problems of writing a purely fictional account that takes place in the middle of a well-established historical setting. It’s all too easy to either fail to mesh your story with reality, or to twist reality to the breaking point to fit your story. Neither option works well.
It feels like this novel was a warped love story between a teenager and an older man, and the author chose to try to shoehorn that plot into a setting that she’s familiar with. The closest the story comes to any kind of conservation narrative is Ed Ricketts’ assertions that the sardines are being overfished. The main character does sketch sea creatures for Ricketts, it’s true, but she eventually moves on the more lucrative business of drawing pornographic pictures to sell at local brothels.
And that leads into my other main complaint about this book: I intensely disliked the main character, Margot. When not obsessing over Ricketts, her observations about the bay are almost uniformly negative. She comes across as self-centered, emotionally distant even in the midst of her pursuit of Ricketts, and caring nothing for the area in which she finds herself living. She only gets worse, in some ways, during the 1998 sequences. Here, we see her as the head (and founder) of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We are readers are then expected to believe that someone could create a world-class research and education institution while simultaneously thinking to herself that she could easily see herself hating the place. At one point, during the planning of the release of a giant sunfish (something that actually did happen in 1998), she even feels disinclined to put in the effort to plan the release and talks about just killing the fish instead. Any modicum of sympathy that I might have had for her was lost at that point.
I do hope that the main character doesn’t reflect how the author feels. From what I’ve read, she lived on the Monterey peninsula, worked at the aquarium, and supposedly loves the area. None of that comes through in this book. I know that the Monterey of the 1940s was substantially different from the Monterey of today, but I would hope that the present day beauty would, at least a little bit, inform the squalor of the past and show the hope of better things ahead. It’s just not there.
There were moments when I could see a glimpse of something skillful in Hatton’s writing. Some of her prose is quite lovely, although oftentimes she seems to be trying to hard to be “literary”, for varying values of that concept. I caught hints of the Monterey that I know, and it just made me hungry for more.
I so wanted this novel to be more than it was. Had it been as advertised, it could have been. Instead, I followed the tale of a girl that I couldn’t like, doing things that made no difference to me. Readers who are familiar with the gorgeous landscape of Monterey Bay and its incredible wildlife will find little to appreciate here.
This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)