on 16 November 2007
In Changing Tides, Michael Thomas Ford using powerful imagery, incorporates the perpetual ebb and flow of the ocean to plot the trajectory of three characters as they chart an uneasy course through love's perfidious waters where romance and passion eventually come to life in many unexpected guises.
Ben Ransome is a reserved and insular middle-aged marine biologist living in Monterey California whose life revolves around his work, his regular dives into the rocky waters off the coast proving to be his only source of solace. Much to Ben's surprise, however, his ex-wife Carol calls from Los Angeles insisting that their teenage daughter Caddie come to stay with him for the summer.
Married life for Ben was far from simple, a remote and dissident man from the outset, he was forced to recognize that he didn't feel this love for his daughter as he knew others did, and he'd left when Caddie was only seven. Now, sixteen years later, Ben approaches this meeting with a mixture of hesitancy and befuddlement. A lover of study and research, he was unable to understand his child then, but he's also convinced that he will be unable to understand her now: "she's like the equation I can't solve, the missing piece of a puzzle that eluded finding."
When Caddie arrives, the relationship with her father is anything but affable. A rebellious and worldly girl with a bad attitude, Caddie treats Ben like a stranger, coming and going as she pleases, smoking dope, staying out late, and sleeping with guys, and also treating her father with a distant blend of distain and anger.
Thrust into a situation that he is least capable of handling, understanding something as complex as a 16-year-old girl apparently seems to be beyond Ben capabilities. He longs for a diagram of Caddie, some neatly labeled chart that would point out the salient details and make understanding her a matter of memorization.
When Caddie has a one night stand with Nick, a local boy, intending him to be a momentary distraction, the incident proves merely to be a source of irritation to her father and proof that she couldn't be controlled. But Caddie also realizes that her father's entire life is a mystery to her, and it had never occurred to her to wonder how he managed; she new just enough about him to believe that he existed and "everything else was a blank."
Meanwhile, Hudson Jones, a young ambitious graduate student arrives in Monterey to research for masters' thesis on some of the influences on Steinbeck's work and also what could possibly be a lost manuscript of the famous author's called "Changing Tides". Constantly feeling unfulfilled, Hudson dreams of his lover Paul whose touch has now gone forever, and who eventually gave him the manuscript for safekeeping just before he died. Haunted by his dead lover's voice, a voice that constantly urges him on, Hudson is determined to keep digging until he finds out the truth.
Central to this "lost" novel is the story of two men, drinking buddies and friends who perhaps mirrored Steinbeck's own relationship with Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist who had so inspired Steinbeck, both in his writing and in his own deep interest in the ocean. But Hudson is sure there was something more to their relationship than just plutonic friendship and he is determined to prove this, not just for his career, but also in the hope that he free himself of his demons as well as give him the strength to let go of Paul.
Hudson, however, doesn't reckon on meeting Ben, the two of them forming a comfortable and intimate friendship, there devotion steadily deepening as they get to know one another, both characterizing themselves as "Mr. Science and Mr. Words," a couple of lonely men who both love Steinbeck. Meanwhile, Steinbeck's story gradually unfolds, a metaphorical tale of two men, unable to express themselves, yet similarly drawn to each other for reasons they cannot understand.
This languid and intense novel explores the small connections that exist, unseen, and the ties however, insubstantial, that exists between us all. The imagery of the ocean plays a significant part in the story as these characters grow and change and gradually overcome their fears about themselves and each other eventually conquering the failures of communication and impulsive judgments that create distance over time.
Caddie, in particular dives deeper and deeper, both metaphorically and spiritually until all that lies before her is a "small circle of gold light that keeps the sea monsters at bay." There gradually develops inside of her a new sense of wanting something more, something more than her old life, and what her old self has to offer. Ben must assuage his fury and confront the challenges of fatherhood, particularly with regard to his angry child - if Caddie wants to use him as a whipping boy, he sees little he can do to change her mind. And Hudson must try to outrun the weight on his shoulders, the burden that just becomes heavier every time he has to face his demons, not just Ben, the newest of them, but all of the others, the ones from which he's run from for so long.
The author makes the most of his setting, beautifully embedding his characters in the town of Monterey and surrounds, including the famous Cannery Row, now a tourist attraction, visited by people who as Hudson notes had mostly probably never heard of John Steinbeck or his famous book. While some of the later scenes do come across as a bit trite, Ford's descriptions of aquatic life are transcendent in their splendor and add much to Ben, Hudson, and Caddie's symbolic and very personal journey. Mike Leonard November 07.