THE LAST CRUISE, by Kate Christensen. Doubleday, 304 pp., $26.95.
Here you are on a two-week cruise from California to Hawaii on the elegant, 1950s-era Queen Isabella. For a little while, you’re freed from work and responsibility. And aren’t you lucky to be exactly where DiMaggio and Monroe once danced on the decks?
Sunny, carefree days and swinging nights, as much food and drink as you want, musical entertainment to keep you humming, an international crew primed to keep you smiling, women in bikinis and men in tight swim trunks ogling one another, a guilt-free environment à la Las Vegas. Is this Eden or Sodom? Maybe both.
Readers of novels know very well that such extravagant expectations are likely to be exploded, and Kate Christensen’s “The Last Cruise” deftly obliges. Vacationers on cruises rarely break free from disappointments back home or get the fresh start they’re searching for. Wherever you go, the sages intone, there you are.
Christensen, author of such fine novels as “The Great Man” and “The Epicure’s Lament,” escorts us on this cruise via three very different protagonists. Christine Thorne, who works a small organic farm in Maine with her husband, has been enticed to make the trip by Valerie Chapin, a friend from her earlier, headier days in New York City. Miriam Koslow, a veteran of Israel’s Six Day War, plays second violin in a Tel Aviv-based string quartet that will premiere a piece commissioned by the ship’s owners, Rivka and Larry Weiss. Miklos (Mick) Szabo has left his native Budapest for greater culinary glory elsewhere. He will serve as one of three sous-chefs here under the legendary Belgian Laurens van Buyten.
This is the final cruise for the aging Isabella. And for each of the three main characters, the trip signals both endings and possibilities. Christine gradually acknowledges that she has made a mistake in marrying Ed. He wants children, and she doesn’t. What’s to come remains uncertain. Miriam knows that the quartet can’t last much longer; they’re all getting older, and the cellist is sickly. Her love life is a tangle, with her viola-playing ex-husband emotionally dependent on her while she’s besotted with the newly widowed first violinist. Mick feels it’s time to give up his unreliable lover in Paris and aspires to join van Buyten at the high-end restaurant he plans to open in Amsterdam.
Christensen maneuvers adroitly among these various conundrums while highlighting her characters’ strengths and flaws. While the plot never flags, the author uses Valerie, a journalist with a nose for a juicy story, to ramp up the excitement. Reporting a book about the underside of globalization, she discovers that the ship’s owners are going to fire the already underpaid and overworked crew at cruise’s end. In response, they stage a “mutiny,” refusing to work, while the Isabella is still a thousand miles from Hawaii. Then the tyrannical executive chef falls ill – was he poisoned? – the electricity sputters off, the engines fail, and the boat drifts helplessly. The passengers’ mood descends from devil-may-care euphoria to boredom to panic.
Will this become “The Love Boat” meets “Lord of the Flies”?
Hardly. “The Last Cruise” shades into thriller territory, but of a sophisticated, multi-layered sort. Christensen is shrewd about human behavior, and her knowledge of cruise ships, cooking and music adds convincing detail to every scene.
Even before the ship leaves California, Christensen evokes dark forebodings through an exacting, intelligent prose. At an aquarium, Christine gazes at tanks of brilliantly colored endangered fish. It was “like walking through a museum of ancient jewelry in bright boxes … everything there to be looked at and admired, but never to be worn again.”