You know you’ve reached a certain age when you start fretting about disposing of your porn collection and sex toys for fear that your grown children will find them after your demise.
That, at least, is the situation that emergency room physician Jessie Drake finds herself in after her lover of 20 years dies, leaving Jessie alone with a VHS copy of “Lesbian Hospital” and other embarrassing items in their condo on the shores of Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont.
The latest novel from Lisa Alther (“Kinflicks,” “Original Sin”) starts on an antic note, even as it focuses on Jessie’s bereavement following the deaths of her parents and her longtime partner, lesbian novelist Kat Justice, in less than two years. Wanting to escape her losses, Jessie accepts an offer from fellow doctor and former lover Ben Armstrong (Jessie had her bisexual moments in her heyday, including a brief marriage that produced those kids) to work in the medical clinic of a cruise ship making its way from Hong Kong to Brooklyn via the Arabian Sea and Suez Canal.
The resulting “odyssey” chronicles the exploits of a 21st-century ship of fools while looping back into Jessie’s past — from “her colt days in Vermont in the 1970s,” when she sneered at monogamy as “a male invention designed to enslave women,” to her recent efforts to hang onto any sense of personal security she can. She’s particularly anxious to retain the essence of Kat in her mind and heart. To that end, she has brought Kat’s last notebooks with her aboard the British cruise ship Amphitrite. But what she reads there, particularly a suite of poems titled “Swan Song,” undermines all her certainties about their relationship.
“Swan Song: An Odyssey” is a short novel, but it covers a lot of ground and embraces a divergent array of tones. Alther’s depiction of the shipboard shenanigans on the Amphitrite is satirical, but her rendering of the arc that Jessie’s life has followed is poignantly bleak: “Her confidence in human kindness and common sense had been undermined over the years by the steady flow of knife and gunshot wounds, battered women, rape victims, and drunks and druggies who had wrecked cars, motorcycles, ATVs, motorboats, Jet Skis, and snowmobiles.”
For readers of a certain generation — Alther was born in 1944 — this shift from a youth energized by a sense of possibility to a maturity informed by personal and societal failings will probably be familiar. “When you started seeing only the sadness of life, with none of the simultaneous beauty and humor,” Jessie reflects, “you were in trouble.”
The Amphitrite’s passengers afford distraction from that trouble, even if they don’t inspire much trust in the human race. The most outrageous distraction is Gail Savage, a self-centered pleasure-seeker with “the looks of a beauty queen turned trophy wife.” Gail sees no reason why she has to be confined to her cabin with her aging husband just because he has the norovirus. So off she goes, pursuing crew and passengers alike, trying to make the most of her looks while she still has them and trampling over anyone who gets in her way.
Other travelers onboard include some “gigolos of the high seas,” a lounge singer who catches the eye of both Jessie and the much-divorced Ben, and an elderly woman who’s a permanent resident of the ship (“It’s more fun than assisted living,” she tells Jessie, “and it’s actually cheaper”). Alther also dips into the world of the ship’s mostly Filipino crew, who stem off loneliness with “too many cheap Coronas” and other more illicit activities.
As the Amphitrite pursues its westward course, Alther fills us in on the sights its passengers see, sometimes letting her research show too baldly, whether it’s with a character’s explanation of why impoverished Somali fishermen have turned to piracy or Jessie’s own musings on the fact that, out of the past 3,400 years in the world’s history, “only 8 percent of them had been war-free.”
Bad girl Gail, slithering around with her tango partner on the dance floor, is amusingly likened to “an octopus with rhythm.” Elsewhere, Alther’s similes are more far-fetched — for instance, when she writes that a body in the ship’s morgue is “like an alligator in the sewers of Manhattan.” Huh?
Certain episodes feel thinly drawn, moving too quickly to have their intended impact. But Jessie’s struggle to keep faith in the love that she and Kat shared is powerful. Alther clearly knows the disorientations that grief can trigger. The novel’s suspense stems from whether or not Jessie will find her bearings and face her losses with dignity.
Despite its occasional shortcomings, “Swan Song” is a journey worth taking.
“Swan Song: An Odyssey” by Lisa Alther, Knopf, 223 pp., $25.95
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