Kate Christensen’s novels hit that sweet spot between beach read and literary fiction. With unsparing wit and an eye for sensuous detail, she’s tackled subjects that range from the inhabitants of a singular Brooklyn apartment building (The Astral) to the emotional repercussions of the death of a family’s patriarch (The Great Man). Her sixth novel, The Last Cruise, is set during the final voyage of a vintage ocean liner on a two-week cruise to Hawaii.
Before heading off to the scrapyard, the Queen Isabella is making one last cruise that will emulate the bygone luxuries of the 1950s. Smoking is allowed on board, but internet and phone use are not. There are no children on board. For highbrow entertainment, the ship owners hired the Sabra Quartet, a notable Israeli string ensemble led by violinist Miriam Koslow, now well into her 70s. Below decks, Hungarian sous chef Mick Szabo toils away, lost in fantasies of vintage cocktails and lobster thermidor. Also on board are Christine Thorne, a journalist turned Maine farmer’s wife, and her writer friend Valerie.
Despite the rich food and evening entertainment, the effort to hearken back to an easier, sunnier decade (a decade, let’s remember, that wasn’t equally pleasant for everyone) can’t disguise the fact that the cruise is taking place in a fractured society on a disintegrating planet. Christine and Miriam become aware of the corners cut by the ship’s cynical owners, while Valerie begins to dig into the personal lives of the unhappy crew, hoping for an exclusive. Even Mick can’t help but notice the tensions rising among his staff as rumors begin to spread about layoffs planned by the cruise ship company. When a crisis hits—and boy, does it ever—the passengers find themselves facing the best and worst aspects of civilization.
The Last Cruise can be read as an analogy to our complex political present—the haves and have-nots divided on a floating world with a selfish wealthy owner that flies off as soon as disaster strikes. But it can also be enjoyed as a darkly humorous comedy of manners, with a diverse cast of characters and enough details about sex, food and drink to satisfy any reader.