The Girl of the Sea of Cortez. Benchley, Peter. New York, Berkley Books, 1983. 229 pages.
Review by Paul George
Peter Benchley will go down in history as the author of Jaws, an entertaining book adapted into an excellent film. More than forty years later, only two of Benchley’s books remain in print, the aforementioned Jaws and one of his lesser known novels, The Girl of the Sea of Cortez. After three thrillers, Benchley wrote Cortez as something of an counterbalance to Jaws.
Paloma is a 16-year-old girl living with her family on the coast of Baja California. She lives with her mother, Miranda, who wishes her would behave more like a young woman, cooking, cleaning, sewing and hanging wet laundry. However, Paloma is much more like her deceased father, Jobim. Daily she takes her boat to a section of the sea that is full of life. There she dives, explores, and, occasionally, finds a pearl. One day, she spots an injured manta ray and saves its life. In contrast, her brother, Jo, only sees the sea as an opportunity to fish and make money.
Paloma is concerned about over fishing and, due to her father, believes in conservation. But Jo only sees the sea as an object of exploitation. Eventually these two ideologies come into conflict.
If this sounds a bit like John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, it is inspired by the same story Steinbeck heard when he was in Baja California.
After Jaws – both the novel and the film – a media-induced hysteria not only made people unreasonably afraid of sharks but led to the killing of many sharks. Benchley became an advocate of the sharks, educating people about the ancient fish. Cortez seems to be an attempt to show that, while the sea can be dangerous, it is also a place of beauty. Sharks appear in the story at least twice. In both cases, they are presented as a potential danger, but also as creatures that are not that interested in humans.
Through Paloma’s adventures, Benchley clearly shows his love for the sea. It is a breezy read, appropriate for a summer read. There are a number of flashback sequences as Paloma remembers her father and what he taught her about the sea. One sequence, however, seems out of place. It feels like Benchley had an idea for a short story and stuck in in the middle of this novel. That’s a small complaint in an otherwise enjoyable read.
This book does not have the adult language or sexuality present in Jaws. I would consider it a very good, almost excellent, selection of young adult readers, even preteens. My son has trouble picking out books for school assignments because any book that has been adapted into a movie or television show cannot be read for credit (I think this is a stupid rule).
Benchley’s first three novels were adapted into film. Cortez was the first to not be adapted. After moving away from the thriller for this novel, Benchley would go back to the basics with Beast, about a giant Humboldt squid tormenting a fishing town. Beast followed the Jaws formula exactly.
The Girl of the Sea of Cortez is one of Benchley’s best novels. Peter Benchley clearly wanted to move away from the sea-thrillers that he was known for and created a fine novel, possibly his best, that deserves to be reintroduced to readers.
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