Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Book review: Monterey Bay by Lindsay Hatton

Margot Fiske is a combustible mix of intellectual shrewdness and emotional need. Tall and appearing older than 15, she has lived an unsettled life alongside her quirky father.

In 1940, his latest “industrial transformation” scheme brings them to the Monterey Bay coast, where she meets real-life biologist Ed Ricketts. She initiates an affair with this tequila-swilling nonconformist, infuriating her father. Attempting to tie Ricketts to her, Margot convinces him of her value as his sketch artist, but his heart isn’t easily captured.

In this world of economic ambition and competitive jealousy, sea creatures are tragic commodities, trapped for food or killed and sold as specimens. In scenes set in 1998, their wonders are exhibited at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (its origins creatively imagined), where Margot is administrator.

A product of her neglectful upbringing, Margot exhibits an unfeeling attitude toward almost everything except Ricketts, making her a challenging heroine. Debut novelist Hatton’s authoritative writing elicits strong emotions, and in this biographically shaped historical novel she brings to life the realm of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, including Steinbeck himself, Ricketts’ brooding patron.

This review first appeared in Booklist's June 1st issue. Lindsay Hatton's Monterey Bay is published today by The Penguin Press ($27, hb, 320pp).   Some more thoughts below.

Ed Ricketts was a real-life marine biologist who inspired the character "Doc" in John Steinbeck's Cannery Row (1945), which I hadn't read beforehand.  Knowledge of the novel isn't necessary for appreciation of the book, although those with greater familiarity with Cannery Row should pick up on additional nuances.

As for Margot, I have to say that I disliked her intensely.  Although I don't need to feel an affinity with protagonists in order to enjoy a book – it's more important that they be well-developed and interesting her attitude and later actions made the novel an uncomfortable read. I did feel sorry for her, though. Unlike Ricketts and Steinbeck, Margot is fictional.  You can read more about the author's background and inspirations for her characters in her interview with the Monterey Herald last Saturday.

For another viewpoint, see the starred review from Kirkus, which is relatively spoiler-free. I liked its description of Margot's "jagged coming of age."

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