John Steinbeck - Sweet Thursday

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Postwar settlin' down

Feb 27, 2001 (Updated Nov 23, 2007)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Amusing romance of a disappearing lifeway on the Monterey waterfront

Cons:Very predictable, sometimes seems condescending to characters

The Bottom Line: Whimsical but pointed tale of trying to arrange what others seem to need.

The Swedish Academy awarded John Steinbeck a Nobel Prize for the intermittently poetic but desolate works like In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, The Winter of Our Discontent, and (I'd add) The Red Pony and the rest of The Long Valley. Much of his popularity rests on the sly, often sentimental and contrived books about “slackers” of his day: Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday (a list to which I’d append Travels with Charley and some of Once There Was a War).

Sweet Thursday is a post-WWII continuation of the setting and of some of the characters from Cannery Row. Monterey Bay was overfished during the war: the sardines are gone and the canneries closed. Two of the major characters are also absent: Lee Chong has sailed off to the South Seas, and Dora has died. The store has passed to a devious Mexican (Jesus and Mary--the name of one man, not a man and a woman). And Dora’s sister has taken over the Bear Flag bordello. Born "Flora," someone told her she seemed more Fauna than Flora, and she decided it was a better name for her.

Steinbeck is as good an example as any of a man who saw women as either madonnas or wh-o-r-es. Sweet Thursday offers something of a complication of that dichotomy. Fauna is a madame and Suzy one of her employees, but Fauna is very maternal, training her girls for marriage to gentlemen and helping her clientele and even non-client neighbors to understand what they really want. And Suzy is not at all cut out for the occupation in which she is temporarily engaged. In some sense both are independent women (and the world does not implode as a result!).

Suzy is not exactly Doc's equal, and it is certainly possible to read her vocation as mothering the middle-aged male child. And it is very tempting to interpret the conventionally happy ending as reflecting Steinbeck’s happy third marriage (just as the antagonisms and disappointments in most of the stories of The Long Valley seem to relate to Steinbeck's then-crumbling first marriage).

“Doc,” who was contentedly independent before the war (WWII) in Cannery Row, is not contented following his return to the Monterey waterfront. He is trying to write a scientific paper on color changes reflecting emotions in octupi (“nervous breakdowns in devilfish” is the local translation), but is getting nowhere--just as his creator’s inspirations were also waning. Various denizens of the neighborhood try to help him to either write the paper or give it up. The eventual consensus solution to Doc's midlife crisis is Suzy. The best-laid plans of bums and madames often and comically go astray to paraphrase the source of one of Steinbeck's grimmer works.

Considering that the main characters are suffering through troubling questions of their vocation, the novel is remarkably sunny. Too ingratiating for some (it is hardly a surprise that one was V. S. Naipaul), others have been amused and charmed by Sweet Thursday. I find some of it annoyingly patronizing (though not as much as Tortilla Flat), but often entertaining. I guess that readers comfortable with Steinbeck’s laissez-faire morality are more likely to enjoy it than others. Carefully planned interventions certainly go awry in the book, which would seem to be a very conservative message. Although I very much doubt that Steinbeck had any political implications in mind, though the book certainly fits with a sort of compulsive domesticity that was rampant following the wartime mobilization(s). Enjoy it, as I did recently, or put it aside, as I did when I bought the book years ago!

Other participants in the writeoff marking Steinbeck’s 99th birthday are: Jiahong, Caravan70, Macresarf1, Skygirl, Murasaki, NFP, Ladydagney1, Howard Creech, egab1, Kchowell, gracef, Isinga, Ed_Grover, Panthera_Leo, and Eplovejoy.

Recommend this product? Yes

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