Saturday, June 2, 2018

Book Review: "The Last Cruise" by Kate Christensen

Some people love cruises with absolute passion. They can think of no greater vacation than sailing the seas, enjoying all of the creature comforts of the ship (including endless parades of food), and exploring the different ports of call. I have many friends and family members who would take a cruise as often as possible if cost and time were not an issue.

I've never been on a cruise, and to be honest, I've stayed away because of all of the horror stories I've seen in the media—the loss of power and water, the fires, the tipping over, the massively contagious viruses that spread among passengers and crew, and pirates. I know these things don't happen often (although some seem to happen more frequently), but I don't know if I like people enough to be stuck with them in the middle of the ocean.

While Kate Christensen's The Last Cruise isn't going to spur crowds of people to immediately book a cruise, it's more than a litany of things that could go wrong at sea.

The Queen Isabella is a vintage ocean liner from the 1950s which is going to make one more voyage, from Long Beach, California to Hawaii, before it is retired from service and sent to the salvage yard. The cruise ship company has decided to make this trip a nostalgic one—passengers will enjoy "old-fashioned" food like Steak Diane and Baked Alaska, as well as classic cocktails and vintage music. Oh, and there won't be wi-fi on the cruise, either.

The cruise couldn't have come at a better time for Christine Thorne. She left her farm home (and her farmer husband) back in Maine to meet her old friend for a vacation. Christine hopes to settle her mind while on the cruise, and determine whether the life that drew her away from New York City and a potential career in journalism years ago is still what she wants, or if she needs to start anew.

Miriam Koslow is an Israeli violinist who, along with her ex-husband, is part of a long-standing quartet which plays on many of the cruises run by the company. The owners of the ship are also the benefactors of the quartet. This last cruise leads Miriam to contemplation of her own mortality and that of her fellow musicians, and leads her to realize she needs to seize what she wants for the rest of her life, no matter the consequences.

Mick Szabo, one of the executive sous-chefs, is only on the cruise because he's filling in at the last minute for someone else. Working for a temperamental, well-known chef puts him on edge, but his skills are top-notch, and he's determined to prove himself worthy of a career beyond cooking on cruise ships. He's unprepared, however, for how tensions among the crew will affect the job he has to do.

Suddenly, everything changes, and the passengers and crew of the Queen Isabella find themselves facing more than where they'll sunbathe that day, what outfit they'll wear to dinner, or how to deal with the insubordination of an employee. They'll have to deal with issues of health and safety, whether there will be enough food and water, and what to do in case a storm comes their way. These crises will test everyone's mettle, bring long-hidden issues to the forefront, and put people in situations they weren't prepared to face.

Much of what occurs in The Last Cruise is unsurprising, and you can see it coming nearly from the beginning of the book. But Christensen still draws you into the story, and creates tremendously evocative images so you can almost smell and taste the food, hear the music, and see the nostalgic glamour around you. Not all of the characters are likable, but you become invested in their stories, and you wonder what will happen to them.

While the events that occur in the book aren't far-fetched if you've seen any news stories about cruise ships, but I felt like there was just too much happening, one thing after another. It almost became too melodramatic—there was a brief moment where I was expecting locusts or frogs to come next. I also thought the villains in the book were too much of a caricature—I would have liked something more than the greedy, insensitive tycoon.

Even with the things I didn't like, I still found The Last Cruise to be a good story. I wouldn't recommend you bring it with you on a cruise ship, however!

NetGalley and Doubleday Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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