Books, Film, Music

The Last Cruise

Mishaps on the high seas and more in a new novel by Kate Christensen ’86.

By Angie Jabine ’79 | December 18, 2018

“Overhead, the Milky Way sprawled across the length of the sky, a violently lavish expanse of light. . . Christine felt a burst of wild, open excitement. Here she was, drunk on a raft in a pool on a ship on a dark ocean, thousands of miles from home.”

In her first novel since 2013, Kate Christensen ’86 seems to pay homage to Katherine Ann Porter’s 1962 Ship of Fools. But unlike Porter’s backward glance at the first inklings of fascism, The Last Cruise voyages uneasily in the present.

We experience the Queen Isabella’s farewell Hawaiian cruise through the eyes of 36-year-old Christine Thorne, a married but restless Maine farmer; Miriam Koslow, an Israeli violinist, onboard with her ex-husband and their bandmates in a classical string quartet; and Miklos Szabo, a youngish sous chef who dreams of leaving shipboard life for good.

Days into the trip, the crew stages a walkout to protest the cruise company’s plans to dismiss them all in Hawaii. Abandoning their 16-hour workdays and cramped berths, they establish an open-air tent camp that Christine’s journalist friend Valerie dubs “Occupy Main Deck.” Then the vacation from hell really begins. A mysterious fire and catastrophic power outage leave the ship bobbing helplessly in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Norovirus breaks out. The cruise line’s rescue barges are delayed for days, and as food supplies dwindle, the ship’s billionaire owner ditches the whole debacle aboard a private helicopter.

Still, there is no aphrodisiac like salt air, especially when things are looking dire. Disgusted at her husband’s craven getaway, the billionaire’s wife consoles herself with Miriam’s ex. The quartet’s first violinist and Miriam rekindle their long-buried attraction, while Christine and Valerie vie for the charms of the moody Hungarian sous chef.

If Nazism is what thrums through Ship of Fools, global ruin is the ever-present hum that powers The Last Cruise. It’s no accident that the strike leader’s tattoo reads En Peligro de Extinción. As a massive storm approaches the becalmed ship, so does a solar-powered catamaran with a blond-haired Palo Alto family aboard. “We just sailed through hundreds of miles of trash,” yells the father to the stranded passengers. “We were headed for Hawaii but we decided to take a detour because we wanted our kids to see the reality firsthand.” It’s a disturbing tale, deftly told.

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