While reading YA author Jennifer E. Smith’s first novel for adult readers, The Unsinkable Greta James, I wondered how a story like this one, about a vivacious, career-minded woman who is iffy about settling down, would have worked out 70 years ago. Of course, the woman would meet a nice chap on an ocean liner, as Greta does in this novel. An epilogue would see her married to the good man, happily pregnant in a sunny kitchen while the souvenirs of her old career, whether as a singer or an athlete or what have you, collected dust in the attic.
Of course, that’s not what happens in The Unsinkable Greta James.
Greta is a rock ’n’ roll musician who is famous enough to be recognized but not so famous that a room goes silent when she walks into it. Ben, a Jack London fanatic, is the love interest whom Greta meets on the cruise ship (and who doesn’t know who she is at first). But for Greta, the “man in her life” isn’t Ben, but her father, Conrad. Greta agreed to join Conrad and his friends on the Alaskan cruise after the sudden death of her mother, Helen, who planned the trip.
Greta and Conrad’s relationship has always been uncomfortable. While he acknowledges her talent, he’s nervous about the precariousness of a career in entertainment. She thinks he’s never been on her side and favors her brother, who has a wife, kids and a steady job with health insurance. They’re completely different and too much alike, and Helen’s death poleaxed both of them. (Another reason Greta is on this ship is to forget an onstage episode when her grief became too overwhelming. She’s not quite unsinkable.)
Smith’s style is as smooth as an Alaskan cruise is supposed to be—though like Greta, the ship does rock and roll now and then. Smith’s characters are good and nice. She does allow for some eccentricity, as in Helen’s friend Todd, an obsessive bird watcher who longs to see some avian rarity on an ice floe. But Smith reserves nearly all the novel’s real complexity for Conrad, a man who can’t seem to overcome a certain midcentury rigidity. Greta is wary of him, and because she’s wary of him, so are we, and this is the real meat of the novel. Can these two stubborn people lay down their arms at long last and connect? That’s the question of The Unsinkable Greta James.