Kate Christensen’s latest page-turner, “The Last Cruise,” is a brilliant twist on the innate drama of a cruise-ship setting: The ship is a 1950s ocean liner, making its final voyage. Much of the fun of reading it is that you know that things will go awry; you’re just not sure how.
Among my many, many personal examples of literary Kryptonite: novels that take place on cruise ships. It’s such an innately dramatic setting: the strangers in close proximity (staff and passengers alike), with limited opportunity for escape; the bland luxury of the surroundings in uneasy contrast with the let-it-all-hang-out recklessness of vacationers; the vastness of the ocean, where the possibility of Titanic-style disaster always lurks uncomfortably near, like a dark cloud over a picnic.
Kate Christensen’s latest page-turning novel, “The Last Cruise,” takes full advantage of all of this; you can practically see the movie’s opening credits. (No, this book doesn’t have a movie deal that I know of. Yet.) Here’s her brilliant twist on the formula: The cruise ship in question, the Queen Isabella, is a 1950s ocean liner making her final voyage; its farewell cruise will be a throwback to its midcentury origins. Smoking! Lobster thermidor! Baked Alaska! Dressing for dinner! Old-school jazz! And — and this can’t possibly go badly, can it? — no internet. It’s a journey into the past, and much of the fun of reading it is that you know that things will go awry; you’re just not sure how.
Three main characters are our cruise guides here. Christine, a former journalist turned New England farmer, is the guest of her friend Valerie, who’s writing a story about the cruise; the trip is a respite, for Christine, from worrying about how to tell her husband back home that she doesn’t think she wants children. Miriam, an elegant, elderly Israeli violinist, is part of the onboard entertainment with her longtime string quartet. For her, the cruise is work — and, unexpectedly, a reawakening of love. And Mick, a Hungarian sous chef, is our connection to the less-glamorous world of the ship’s staff; the cramped, shared lodgings; the staff lounge, furnished with “mismatched castoffs and discarded leftovers”; the windowless galley, with air “so thick and wet, Mick felt as if he were breathing hot seawater.”
Each of these people has a compelling story (though it takes a while to warm up to the initially loutish Mick), but there’s a sense that we’re biding our time before something goes very wrong. Christensen has some fun with foreboding: Christine, early on, visits an aquarium and is haunted by the seafloor exhibit; Mick, gazing at brining pigs in the galley, has fleeting thoughts of cannibalism. And then, just past the book’s halfway point, somebody announces “This is a bad situation” — and from there, you might be sitting up late turning pages, as I was, grateful to be safely on dry land.
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Christensen, a PEN/Faulkner Award winner for “The Great Man,” brings a special zest to the kitchen scenes; this is a writer who knows her way around a galley, with its curious odors and regimented processes. (She’s also written two food-focused memoirs, “Blue Plate Special” and “How to Cook a Moose.”) “The Last Cruise” moves swiftly, with welcome bits of dark humor (after disaster strikes, someone’s first question is whether there’ll be a midnight buffet that evening) and vivid character detail; we experience the drama through Christine, Miriam and Mick, and come to know them through it. Is it a literary thriller, or a novel that just happens to contain some thriller elements? Either way, it reads just fine.
“The Last Cruise” by Kate Christensen, Doubleday, 304 pp., $26.95
Kate Christensen will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 18, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; 206-624-6600, elliottbaybook.com.