I loved that Steinbeck set this novel among the 'low-life' inhabitants of the Monterey area, and that he infused it with such humanity and hope. Despite the miserable surroundings the characters find themselves in, their lives are essentially happy. They aren't caught up in consumerism and the desire for status, and they are able to appreciate some things about life that we can miss, such as how valuable simple acts of kindness can be. Perhaps because they have found themselves at the bottom rung of society, they live without judgement and simply take people for who they are. That's a message that we all need to be reminded of every now and again, that beauty and kindness can be found anywhere.
The sense of place in Cannery Row is fantastic. Steinbeck's writing seemed more poetic in this novel, particularly when he was describing the quality of light over the row, or the sunrise over the sea. It made the novel extremely visual, and by the end I felt as if I knew Cannery Row myself, as I could imagine it all so clearly.
My only complaint with the novel is that, in common with the other Steinbeck novels I have read, there was too much focus on the male characters. The character of Doc was fascinating, and so was Mack, but I wanted to read more about Dora and the women who worked for her. There's a great little section where Dora schedules the girls to deliver soup and company to families during a flu outbreak between clients, but it's never expanded on. I wanted to know their thoughts and motivations, and experience their lives too. Similarly, it's hinted that Lee Chong has a wife, daughters and daughters-in-law, but they are entirely absent from the novel.
Still, Cannery Row is a beautiful novel. The writing and the characters combined to give me such a feeling of hope, that people anywhere can live their lives in a decent and caring way. I'm looking forward to getting to the sequel, Sweet Thursday.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1945
Edition Read: Penguin Modern Classics, 2000
Score: 4.5 out of 5
The Classics Club: Book 33/72
My full list of titles and reviews can be found here.