Last month my husband and I went to Disneyland, which is about a 4-5 hours drive from where we live. We figured we’d listen to an audiobook during the drive, so we agreed on Cannery Row. We both love the central coast of California, and this book takes place in the heart of it. Since he and I are such different readers (he loves literary things that don’t necessarily have an exciting plot… or a plot at all…. and I like things that are exciting and use less words to describe things), I figured it’d be fun to see our combined opinions on various aspects of the book.
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Published by Penguin Books on February 5th 2002
Genres: Historical Fiction, Classic Literature
Narrator: Jerry Farden
Length: 6 hours and 1 minute
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Cannery Row is a book without much of a plot. Rather, it is an attempt to capture the feeling and people of a place, the cannery district of Monterey, California, which is populated by a mix of those down on their luck and those who choose for other reasons not to live "up the hill" in the more respectable area of town. The flow of the main plot is frequently interrupted by short vignettes that introduce us to various denizens of the Row, most of whom are not directly connected with the central story. These vignettes are often characterized by direct or indirect reference to extreme violence: suicides, corpses, and the cruelty of the natural world.
The "story" of Cannery Row follows the adventures of Mack and the boys, a group of unemployed yet resourceful men who inhabit a converted fish-meal shack on the edge of a vacant lot down on the Row.
Sweet Thursday is the sequel to Cannery Row.
*The shopping links above take you to purchase the pretty edition of Cannery Row I have photographed above!
Maritime life, an eccentric community, and the Depression Era
Ali: When I first started this book, I was like, OMG DOES THIS BOOK EVEN HAVE A PLOT. And then I looked up a synopsis and the first line was “This book doesn’t have much of a plot.” I thought I was going to hate it.
Each chapter in the beginning reads like a bunch of short stories, but the further in you get, the more the characters start to repeat and a small storyline develops. The “plot” is that you’re reading about life on Cannery Row for this period of time. Nothing exciting necessarily happens. So there’s not much of a plot, but there’s something. I would say that the lack of significant plot did make it easy to zone out during some of the chapters…
Cole (the husband): So, Cannery Row, like a lot of literary fiction, doesn’t have a very interesting plot in a ‘let me read the synopsis and see what this is all about,’ sort of way. This is essentially the story of roustabouts and vagrants and bouncers and other colorful characters in Depression Era Monterey, CA, and how the lives of these characters interweave and culminate in a party thrown for Doc (in recompense for an earlier party, which destroyed his house, and which he was conspicuously absent of). The real magic is in the snapshots of the day-to-day goings on of these men and women, seemingly random, often hilarious, and all tied together by the rusty, salty charm of the Central Coast of California.
Ali: The characters are easily the meat of the this book. They’re fantastic, and often quite funny! Steinback weaves their storylines together in a way that really captures an eccentric community of people. At the end of the book, I felt as though I really understood what Cannery Row life was like, which says a lot considering the book is so short.
Cole: This is the strength of this novel. Like the best literary characters, Mack and the gang and Doc and Lee Chong and all the others are just absurd enough to be believable. The characters are somewhat lonely, most chapters are vignettes focused on one or a few, but they come together to form a tattered, colorful pastiche. The best moments are the banter and silly rationalizations of Mack’s gang on their various adventures.
Ali: Can I make a confession? I don’t very often notice writing in books. ESPECIALLY in audiobooks. If the writing is bad, I absolutely notice it, but if it falls anywhere from fine to amazing, I won’t notice it at all. So I can’t comment much on the writing. *hides face in shame*
Cole: I’m not very fond of some of Steinbeck’s other novels, although maybe I should revisit them since I enjoyed his writing so much in this one. Atmospheric passages are interspersed with the picaresque plot, and having grown up in love with the Central Coast, I can attest to these passages’ effectiveness. Some very straightforward stuff, some very literary and lovely passages, and some funny dialogue give good variety to the writing.
Ali: The ending was sort of a bummer for me. The book starts out looking at Cannery Row from afar, which was really a lovely beginning to the novel. I had hoped that it would end the same, sort of zoomed out again and describing the atmosphere of the place now that we know the people that who it. BUT it didn’t end that way. View Spoiler »It ends focused on one of the characters, Doc. And even weirder was that he was reading, so the book ends with a passage from the book he was reading. It wasn’t particularly moving for me. « Hide Spoiler
Cole: I know Ali didn’t really like the ending, but she isn’t as into the strictly literary fiction with its often inconclusive endings. I liked it well enough. Steinbeck drops us into the lives of these characters and this place and pulls us back out at an appropriate and satisfying conclusion. View Spoiler »The ending seems to focus on Doc (a scientist and consumer of high culture), the apparent odd man out around Cannery Row and the contentment he is finally able to find among his odd community of vagrants, roustabouts, bouncers, artists, and whores. « Hide Spoiler
ALI and COLE:
The bottom line: We both quite liked it!