Although set in the present day, “The Last Cruise” harkens back to an earlier era of popular fiction. The latest novel by the PEN/Faulkner award-winning author of “The Great Man” is sure to remind some older readers of the work of Arthur “Airport” Hailey, Paul “The Poseidon Adventure” Gallico and Katherine Anne “Ship of Fools” Porter.

Portland author Kate Christensen’s take on high seas adventure is all her own, though – perceptive, sophisticated, propulsive. “The Last Cruise” is surely not the last word on this kind of novel, but it’s a bracing example of popular storytelling with a literary twist.

After its final voyage from Long Beach to Hawaii and back, the ocean liner Queen Isabella will be decommissioned. In the meantime, it has been gussied up to reflect the tastes of its 1957 maiden voyage – bespoke cocktails, live classical music and opportunities to dress and dance elegantly, with no Wifi or children allowed to spoil the experience. But the trappings of the past hide present-day imperfections, and the passengers and the crew will have to navigate a treacherous course.

For former journalist Christine Thorne, the cruise is a chance to spend some time away from the farm in Maine, reconnect with Valerie, a successful former colleague, and escape from her husband’s gentle but constant pressure to have children. Hungarian executive sous chef Mick Szabo views the trip as an opportunity to shine in his profession the way he has always wanted – and a chance to re-evaluate his relationship with an ambivalent lover back in Paris. The cruise serves as a wake-up call for elderly Israeli violinist Miriam Koslow, forcing her to re-examine the assumptions she has made for decades about her colleagues and herself.

With its sparkling dialogue, charming cast of characters and seemingly low-stakes conflicts, “The Last Cruise” at first appears merely to be an oceanic comedy of manners, a good-natured takedown of overly indulgent vacationing. Without naming names, Christensen slyly refers to one of the best-known accounts of modern ocean travel, David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” “The Last Cruise” may owe a debt to that essay, but it benefits from the freedom that fiction allows.

Early on, though, Christensen deploys an elegant bit of foreshadowing. During a trip to an aquarium, Christine becomes fixated on the whereabouts of an octopus who seems to have disappeared from its tank. So great is her anxiety about the missing cephalopod that she nearly suffers a panic attack.

Hinting that not everyone’s cares will float away on the voyage, Christensen writes, “Back out in the warm, bright air, (Christine) sat on the nearest bench on the marina, with her eyes closed, taking deep breaths until she’s finally calmed down enough to walk back to her hotel. She looked forward to seeing Valerie, having a drink on board the ship. She couldn’t wait to sail away.”

As the Queen Isabella heads into the Pacific, trouble brews below decks, the employees simmering with resentment about low wages and lack of job security. Meanwhile, the occupants of the luxury cabins above enjoy the food, festivities and casual sex without regard to their costs.

Kate Christensen Photo by Erin Little

 

Among its many pleasures, “The Last Cruise” feels especially well researched. Whether she’s writing about the difference between blanched and unblanched sauteed sweetbreads or assessing the relative difficulty of a traditional string quartet’s repertoire, Christensen lays out the details with authority, not letting trivia overwhelm the pace of the narrative but lending a strong sense of verisimilitude to the proceedings.

Eventually, calamity strikes, happening with a speed that seems almost supernatural. Torn between his own ambitions and his loyalties both to his kitchen crew and to the passengers, Chef Mick perhaps sees the dangers most clearly, but Christine and Miriam are particularly attuned to them as well. Each will be forced to make decisions that will test their integrity, bravery and compassion.

When the head of the cruise company hops a handy helicopter and flies away from his unlucky customers and employees, “The Last Cruise” definitively affirms itself as a commentary on greed and entitlement. Never forgetting that she is crafting a literary thriller, Christensen addresses issues of climate change and immigration obliquely, letting them rise naturally out of her novel’s central conflicts.

By the time the Queen Isabella reaches its final destination, “The Last Cruise” puts its characters and its readers through a gauntlet of turmoil. Christensen steers the story, streamlined yet substantial, through turbulent waters, but never loses track of its current of humanity.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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