The Last Cruise, by Kate Christensen

>> Sunday, September 16, 2018

TITLE: The Last Cruise
AUTHOR: Kate Christensen

PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: Doubleday

SETTING: Contemporary, US and the high seas!
TYPE: Fiction

From the acclaimed PEN-Faulkner Award-winning author of The Great Man comes a riveting high-seas adventure that combines Christensen's signature wit, irony, and humanity to create a striking and unforgettable vision of our times.

The 1950s vintage ocean liner Queen Isabella is making her final voyage before heading to the scrapyard. For the guests on board, among them Christine Thorne, a former journalist turned Maine farmer, it's a chance to experience the bygone mid-20th century era of decadent luxury cruising, complete with fine dining, classic highballs, string quartets, and sophisticated jazz. Smoking is allowed but not cell phones--or children, for that matter. The Isabella sets sail from Long Beach, CA into calm seas on a two-week retro cruise to Hawaii and back.

But this is the second decade of an uncertain new millennium, not the sunny, heedless fifties, and certain disquieting signs of strife and malfunction above and below decks intrude on the festivities. Down in the main galley, Mick Szabo, a battle-weary Hungarian executive sous-chef, watches escalating tensions among the crew. Meanwhile, Miriam Koslow, an elderly Israeli violinist with the Sabra Quartet, becomes increasingly aware of the age-related vulnerabilities of the ship herself and the cynical corners cut by the cruise ship company, Cabaret.

When a time of crisis begins, Christine, Mick, and Miriam find themselves facing the unknown together in an unexpected and startling test of their characters.
The small but glamorous ship Isabella is on its last cruise before it's decommissioned, a 2 week jaunt to Hawaii with a 1950s theme. It's all going to be perfect: the luxurious food, the entertainment, even the lack of mobile phones.

Christine Thorne is there as a guest of her friend Valerie, who's a successful journalist and writer. Christine used to be a journalist in New York as well, but for several years now she's lived in a small farm in Maine, working alongside her farmer husband. She's at at a point in her life where she's feeling increasingly dissatisfied and antsy about her quiet life, and hopes the break in her routine might help.

Miriam Koslow is on the Isabella for work. She's a veteran of the Six Days War, and with her ex-husband and two other friends, all of them fellow war veterans, they make up the Sabra string quartet, based in Tel Aviv. The owner of the ship and his wife have long been the Sabra's main benefactors, with a big proportion of the quartet's income coming from commissions of theirs just like this one. Miriam is thinking of slowing down, as they're all getting old, but she's not slowing down on the romance front. One of the other members of the Quartet, a man with whom she's always had a bit of chemistry, is newly widowed, and both seem in the mood to do something about it.

And then there's Mick Szabo, also part of the onboard staff. Mick is a chef, originally from Hungary. He's been cooking on cruise ships for many year, but this trip represents a bit of a promotion for him. He's been working as a line cook, but one of the sous chefs on the Isabella injured himself shortly before the cruise started, and Mick's been offered his role for this trip. He's hoping to impress the head chef, who's rumoured to be starting a restaurant in Amsterdam and looking for good staff. This would allow Mick to stay put a bit more and maybe get a proper relationship with the Frenchwoman he's in love with (since he's never there, she's made it clear she's not going to be faithful).

And as Mick cooks, Miriam plays her viola and Christine gorges herself on food and drink and vegetates by the pool, there's tension behind the scenes. The staff of the ship have been told their contracts will be cancelled as soon as they reach their destination (the better to hire people a bit more desperate than them, at lower salaries), and the atmosphere below-decks is one of simmering discontent and resentment.

This was very promising. The atmosphere was beautifully done and the increasing hints of something brewing below the luxury worked really well to ratchet up some tension. I liked that I didn't really know much more than what's in the last paragraph as I read the first sections, so for the first half of the book, I had no idea where this was going and what kind of book it was supposed to be.

When things finally did bubble over and the conflict erupted, I practically rubbed my hands in glee, looking forward to what was coming. But the second half turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. All the tension seemed to simply dissipate, and the narrative turned into a low-key... well, I won't say precisely a "slog", but it was close. It felt like a waste, because what had been set up as the big surprise really should have been great. The contrast between the world of the staff below-decks and their treatment, compared to the luxurious experience they're supposed to deliver to passengers, it created the opportunity both for excellent conflict and for some very interest social commentary. But Christensen just didn't do all that much with it. Other things happen that mean that attention shifts to external threats which are a lot less interesting.

My other issue was that I found several of the characters a bit annoying. Mick was not particularly interesting, but Christine, particularly, was super tedious. She's consumed with her domestic problems, even while people's lives are collapsing around her. She doesn't seem to have a social conscience at all. It's not that she's got a particular ideology I don't like, it's that other people's struggles don't even seem to register with her. I think we're meant to sympathise with her, rather than with her friend Valerie, whose reason to be on the ship is that she's researching a book about labour conditions in places such as cruise ships. It felt like we were meant to find Valerie somehow laughable and annoying, but I liked her a huge deal more than Christine, the strikebreaker who does it with zero consideration of the consequences.

Miriam was the one character I found interesting, and I really did like her. I liked the good-humoured way she dealt with the indignities of older age and the way she didn't allow them to stop her enjoying life and seeking happiness. There's a great deal of humour in the interactions between the members of the quartet. Not funny 'ha-ha' humour, but the humour of people who have known each other for a long time and are all-too-aware of each other's foibles, and refuse to take them too seriously.

Having a look at reviews I've seen a lot of complaints about the ending. I don't want to spoil it, but I'll say it's on the open side. I didn't mind it. Partly, it may have been that I was ready for the book to end, but also, it did seem to fit well.



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