Christine Thorne is taking a rare vacation from her Maine farm to take a cruise from Los Angeles to Hawaii with her best friend, a journalist who’s using the trip to do research for a book about service workers. The ship is the Queen Isabella, an old-school ocean liner on its last voyage. In honor of the ship’s history, the dining and entertainment will have a retro feel. The food will be provided in part by Mick Szabo, newly promoted to sous-chef and hoping to prove himself. And the some of the entertainment will be provided by the Sabra Quartet, whose second violinist, Miriam Koslow, is not exactly looking forward to the trip, especially since they’ll be performing a tricky piece by the ship’s owner and she’s been assigned a room with her ex-husband.
A cruise ship can be a useful vehicle for fiction, given that it puts a variety of characters together in a closed space for a definite length of time. In Kate Christensen’s novel, the trip starts out with ordinary human dramas of people trying to get along in this closed space. And then the disasters start.
Every now and then, I think it might be fun to go on a cruise. With the right cruise, I’d get to see lots of different places while sleeping in the same bed each night. Pretty great! But then I remember this bit from folk singer Cheryl Wheeler:
In this novel, having to eat Pop Tarts and Spam was a minor hardship. It seems like all the things happen. Worker strike, fire, engine failure, storms, norovirus, etc., etc. I don’t think anyone falls overboard … at least none of the major characters and their associates do.
Over the course of the journey, all of the characters have to face up to their true selves and what they really want in life. At first, it’s the sort of musing that comes with being in a new environment. How do I like this? Is this working? But then, as disaster strikes, they each learn about themselves through their responses to the disaster. Or at least that’s the idea.
Although I enjoyed watching the events unfold, I wished some of the characterizations had been more robust. For instance, Christine’s realization at the end didn’t seem sufficiently grounded in what we’ve learned about her so far. And Mick and Miriam are mostly the same as they were before. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that sometimes the book seemed to be pointing to big revelations that seemed minor next to everything else that was going on. I just never could bring myself to care about the characters as much as I cared about the situation. But I cared enough about the situation that I was happy to read this.