Margot Fiske is seen at ages 15 and 73 as she variously pursues and recalls her relationship with marine biologist Ed Ricketts and relates how she came to run an aquarium.
The 15-year-old Margot and her entrepreneurial father have been bouncing around the world as this debut novel opens with their arrival in Monterey, California, in 1940. When she falls and gashes her head while working with Ed, he carries her to his lab, stitches her wound, and introduces her to sex, believing her claim to be 20. After the truth emerges and Ed grows distant, Margot carries a torch even as she comes to know the scientist’s libidinous, hard-drinking side and his cantankerous friend John Steinbeck. There was a marine biologist named Ed Ricketts who in the 1930s worked in the Monterey Bay area where Steinbeck set Cannery Row and who is the basis for characters in several of the Nobelist’s novels. This borrowing from history is less interesting than the twisting path that eventually brings the resourceful Margot back to Monterey Bay in the 1980s with a sizable fortune and a plan to honor her father’s Monterey venture and Ed’s scientific ideas by establishing an aquarium. Chapters alternate mainly between 1940 and 1998, with the latter conveying some of the humor and challenges in running the facility; the author herself has worked at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the descriptions of marine life are sensuously precise. Overall, Hatton shapes a jagged coming-of-age and growing-old story with fine vignettes held together by Margot’s pluck and her commitment to feelings and memories that matter deeply.
Along with creating a fully realized, realistic heroine seen across decades, Hatton is a writer of often exceptional prose, sometimes overwrought but always thoughtful.