A lover of study and research, Ben Ransome is an emotionally shutdown middle-aged marine biologist living in Monterey, California, whose life revolves around his work and
the regular dives off the rocky waters of the coast which prove to be his only source of solace. Much to Ben's surprise, his ex-wife, Carol, calls from Los Angeles insisting that their teenage daughter, Caddie, come to stay with him for the summer.
throws Ben into a tailspin of angst as he hardly knows his daughter. He was unable to understand his child then, and he's convinced that he will be unable to understand her now. Married life for Ben was far from simple.
A remote and diffident man from the outset, he was eventually forced to recognize that he didn't have the love for his daughter as he knew others did.
He left his family when Caddie was only seven.
Now Caddie is sixteen, and Ben approaches this meeting with a mixture of hesitancy and befuddlement: "She's like the equation I can't solve, the missing piece of a puzzle that eluded finding." When Caddie arrives, from the outset the tension between father and daughter is palpable. A rebellious and worldly city girl with a mostly bad attitude, Caddie treats Ben like a stranger
- coming and going as she pleases, smoking marijuana, staying out late, and sleeping with guys, while 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 sixteen-year-old girl apparently seems to be beyond Ben capabilities. He longs for a diagram of Caddie, some neatly labeled chart
to 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, she intends him to be a momentary distraction even when he has a girlfriend.
The incident proves merely to be a source of irritation to her father and proof that she can't be controlled.
Meanwhile, Hudson Jones, an ambitious young graduate student, arrives in Monterey to research for his master's thesis on some of the influences on Steinbeck's work and also what
might possibly be a lost manuscript of the famous author's, summarily called "Changing Tides." Hudson, however, is also haunted by
the voice of Paul, his dead lover who gave him the manuscript for safekeeping just before he died and who constantly urges him to keep on digging until he finds out the truth behind the provenance of this mysterious work.
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 platonic friendship. Fueled by the specter of Paul, Hudson is determined to prove this, not just for his career, but also in the hope that he
can free himself of his demons and gather the strength to let go of Paul.
Hudson eventually meets Ben, and the two of them form a comfortable and intimate friendship, characterizing themselves as "Mr. Science and Mr. Words," a couple of lonely men who both love Steinbeck and
are unable to express themselves, yet are similarly drawn to each other for reasons they cannot understand. Caddie, meanwhile, realizes that her father's entire life is a mystery to her;
it has never occurred to her to wonder how he managed. She knew just enough about him to believe he existed and that "everything else was a blank."
Michael Thomas Ford uses some powerful imagery in Changing Tides to show how his characters grow and change over this long, hot summer. The perpetual ebb and flow of the ocean and the mysteries of deep-sea aquatic life are beautifully incorporated into
the trajectories of Ben, Hudson and Caddie as they chart an uneasy course through love's perfidious waters, where passion and commitment eventually come to life in many unexpected guises. The tone is languid and pensive, a perfect fit for a novel that is intent to explore the small connections that exist unseen and the ties, however insubstantial, that exist between these people.
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." She develops inside herself a new sense of wanting 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. Hudson must try to outrun the weight on his shoulders, the burden that becomes heavier every time he has to face his demons, not just of his attraction to Ben but all of the others, the ones from which he's run for so long.
The author makes the most of his powerful setting, particularly the picaresque town of Monterey and its surrounds, including the famous Cannery Row, now a tourist attraction, visited by people who, as Hudson notes, have mostly probably never heard of John Steinbeck or his famous book. While some of the later scenes in the novel do feel a bit telegraphed, Ford's sensitive and potent insights into the heart of the human condition add much to much to the story of Ben, Hudson, and Caddie as they gradually learn to overcome their fears about themselves and each other.