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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Review: Monterey Bay

Monterey Bay - Lindsay Hatton

In Monterey Bay, Lindsay Hatton uses the section of Monterey know as “Cannery Row,” as made famous by John Steinbeck, and peoples it with a sampling of its 1940s residents, including its most famous duo, Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts. As a Steinbeck fan, I wanted to read Monterey Baybecause of the obvious connection. Ironically, in the end, it was this association that kept me most distant.

Monterey Bay is the uncomfortable coming-of-age story of Margot Fiske, the fifteen-year-old daughter of an entrepreneur eyeing the California coast. With gorgeous prose, Hatton tells the story of Fiske, an independent, turbulent young woman. By lifting from history and Steinbeck's own work, Hatton is able to construct a world around Fiske that is colorful and treacherous. Unfortunately, Hatton takes many liberties with the facts. Details are changed to advance the plot and create drama. Among the many liberties, Steinbeck is a raging misogynist prick. Whoa! Let's stop there.

This isn't the first time I've come across the argument (and so I expect a debate may ensue with what I have to say). Indeed, Steinbeck had a fair share of female characters who were prostitutes or unlikable for one reason or another. His female characters were sometimes described by other characters as derogatory names that alluded to their sexual practices. Hell, Steinbeck created perhaps the most evil woman to ever grace the pages of literature. At the same time, Steinbeck created many female characters who were the opposite. Who was the strength of The Grapes of Wrath if not Ma Joad? While the men let their dreams lead them to irrational decisions and exploitation, Ma was the resilient fighter? In such patriarchal times, she was the head of the family. Look at Elisa in “The Chrysanthemums.” Some modern readers see a woman who is stereotyped and disregarded because of her gender and they yell “woman hater.” What they're missing is Steinbeck's absolute care he approaches the subject with. As is evidenced in all of his work, Steinbeck painted an accurate picture of the world, then manipulated it in the way he wanted the reader to feel. Steinbeck was not glorifying Elisa's treatment, he exposing it. What other male writers of the time acknowledged a double standard? (I'd be happy to discuss this further, but not in the body of this review. Feel free to comment or message me if you'd like to examine this further.)

In the many, many works and letters I've read of Steinbeck, I see nothing that approaches the man with the same name inMonterey Bay and that makes me pause. To what purpose does this serve? One might argue Hatton is taking a feminist approach to the subject, but then why is the mature present-day Fiske waiting for the commands of a man who has been dead for half a century? Grown Fiske may be more rational than her younger self, but she certainly does not come off as strong or independent. And so I walk away, not sure what I am supposed to be feeling or getting out of this novel.

One may assume, as many readers have, that Hatton knows nothing about Steinbeck and Ricketts. Take a step back, however, let emotions settle and look at the novel logically. Yes, Hatton does know a thing or two about her subjects, though she may be casting them in the most negative light possible. The farther back I step, the more I realize that, if nothing else, Hatton knows the novels of Steinbeck. In fact, there's almost a clever metafictional quality to this story, the way Margot begins to look like one of Steinbeck's “girls,” particularly the heinous Cathy (East of Eden). But again, to what aim? Is she trying to justify Cathy? Humanize her? If so, I think she failed.

Push aside all the factual errors and the harsh portrayals of real-life people, forget the wavering plot and questionable fictional characters, and the fact is, Hatton is in many ways a wonderfully talented writer. In regards to language, the cadence and word choice lead to gorgeous sentences that build into wonderfully-crafted passages. The story leads to more questions than it answers and it may have been cleaned up considerably, but that's not to say it lacked bursts of genius. From my limited perspective, I believe deficiencies in the plot could be chalked up to the author trying to tackle such a daunting work; it's evident she was taking on a huge task.

With my great appreciation for Steinbeck, I would've preferred the same story without the connection to Ricketts and Steinbeck. I think it would've been an easier task for the author to take on. Granted, I would've been less likely to give the novel a try initially without the attached names, but it's possible I would've eventually. That said, if given a novel with an interesting blurb, I would return to Hatton in the future. This one may have not worked for me, but I see considerable potential between the lines.