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The Last Cruise
Cover of The Last Cruise
The Last Cruise
A Novel
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The 1950s ocean liner Queen Isabella is making her final voyage—a retro cruise from Long Beach to Hawaii and back—before heading to the scrapyard. For the guests on board, it's a chance to experience a bygone era of decadent luxury, complete with fine dining, classic highballs, string quartets, and sophisticated jazz. Smoking is allowed but not cell phones—or children, for that matter. But this is the second decade of an uncertain new millennium, not the sunny, heedless mid-twentieth century, and certain disquieting signs of strife and malfunction above and below deck intrude on the festivities, throwing a trio of strangers together in an unexpected and startling test of character.
The 1950s ocean liner Queen Isabella is making her final voyage—a retro cruise from Long Beach to Hawaii and back—before heading to the scrapyard. For the guests on board, it's a chance to experience a bygone era of decadent luxury, complete with fine dining, classic highballs, string quartets, and sophisticated jazz. Smoking is allowed but not cell phones—or children, for that matter. But this is the second decade of an uncertain new millennium, not the sunny, heedless mid-twentieth century, and certain disquieting signs of strife and malfunction above and below deck intrude on the festivities, throwing a trio of strangers together in an unexpected and startling test of character.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book Part I: The Theater of Nostalgia

    Chapter One

    As Christine walked out of the air-conditioned terminal into the balmy, sweet air of Southern California, she inhaled sharply and started to laugh. She might as well have traveled to another planet. It was summer here. The air vibrated with sunlight. Bits of mica glinted in the pavement, making it sparkle. She walked through clumps of people with deep tans wearing shorts and sandals. When she looked down to steer her luggage cart over the curb, she caught a glimpse of the winter pallor of her own skin, dead white.

    The cabbie helped her stow everything in his trunk. “You brought everything, I guess.”

    “I’m going on a cruise,” she told him, trying to temper her giddy elation with apology. In the cab on the way to the hotel, she leaned her head against the back of the seat and watched the palm trees roll by. She wanted to drift on the fumes of the wine she’d drunk on the plane, lose herself in thought, but the cabbie was energetically chatty, with a musical but guttural accent she couldn’t place. He had shining black hair and chalky skin, and he was skeletally skinny. She decided he was a vampire, which added a dreamlike, sinister undertone to his chattiness.

    He was also, apparently, a self-appointed ambassador to Long Beach. “We are the seventh-largest city in California,” he was saying. “We are the second-busiest seaport in the United States, as well as the Aquatic Capital of America. There are many boats to charter for excellent dolphin and whale watching. And the beaches. Five and a half miles. You have heard of Misty May-Traynor?”

    Christine shook herself awake, trying to focus.

    “Olympic gold medalist beach volleyball star?” He peered at her in the rear view.

    “Right,” she said. She added, as if to justify her ignorance of this local celebrity, “I’m only here till tomorrow afternoon.”

    “Go to the Aquarium of the Pacific,” he said, undaunted. “It is the second-most popular family destination in Los Angeles after Disneyland. And go aboard the Queen Mary.”

    “I’m about to be on the Queen Isabella for two weeks.”

    He was silent, possibly offended at her equating the two ships.

    She asked, “How long have you lived here?”

    “Eight years,” he said.

    “Where are you from?”

    “I moved here from Wisconsin.”

    “I mean originally?” She peered at his medallion, but his name was obscured by the large plush whale affixed to his dashboard.

    He went quiet again, as if she had made another faux pas, this one even worse. Christine had never met a cab driver in her life who was offended by this question, but of course there was always a first time.

    In front of the hotel, under the porte-cochere, the driver reached back and took the money she handed him, and when she waved away the change, he nodded with aggrieved gratitude, not meeting her eye.

    “I apologize,” she said, her door open, one leg out of the cab, her bag slung across her shoulder. “I shouldn’t have asked where you’re from. That’s none of my business.”

    He finally looked directly at her with a small, tight smile. “I am from Wisconsin,” he told her. “Have a nice stay in Long Beach, ma’am.”

    Christine had just turned thirty-six; she couldn’t help taking that “ma’am” as a small slap in the face. She glared at...
About the Author-
  • Kate Christensen is the author of six prior novels, most recently The Astral, and the memoir Blue Plate Special. The Great Man won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. She has written reviews and essays for numerous publications, including The New York Times, Vogue, Elle, The Wall Street Journal, and Food & Wine. She lives with her husband in Portland, Maine. www.katechristensen.net
Reviews-
  • Library Journal

    March 1, 2018

    PEN/Faulkner Award winner Christensen takes us on the final voyage of the 1950s-era ocean liner Queen Isabella, as guests nostalgically enjoy retro drinks and luscious jazz, with both cell phones and children banned. Belowdecks, tensions simmer among the crew, some of whom know the ship is creakier than it looks.

    Copyright 2018 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    May 28, 2018
    This sly novel from Christensen (winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award for The Great Man) begins as a casual romp and then heads inexorably into darker territory. Embarking from California on the final voyage of an ocean liner that first hit the seas in the 1950s are former journalist and current Maine farmer Christine, aging Israeli violinist Miriam, and troubled Hungarian cook Mick. As Christine lounges in the sun and observes the other passengers, Miriam prepares to play a complicated piece with the other members of her string quartet and Mick copes with growing conflicts among the members of the kitchen staff. When a strike by the staff coincides with increasingly serious problems with the mechanics of the ship, the cruise quickly loses its luster. The three central characters and half a dozen others are clearly developed as Christensen integrates their personal stories into the microcosm of the onboard society. While the author’s attempts to keep the boat isolated from contact with the outside world sometimes strain credulity, and her careful parcelling out of romantic difficulties seems less than organic, the book steadily gains power as the boat loses its, and the portrayal of a small society on the edge of chaos is haunting. Christensen has crafted a Ship of Fools for an era of environmental concerns and social unrest.

  • Kirkus

    June 15, 2018
    Christensen (How to Cook a Moose, 2015, etc.) chronicles the intersecting human tragicomedies above- and belowdeck during a luxury liner's farewell Hawaiian cruise.Commissioned back in 1953, the Queen Isabella has had a long sea life. But now the corporate owners have arranged her farewell adults-only cruise with a glamorous mid-20th-century retro theme. In fact, the Queen Isabella is a little too retro, with drab '70s-era staterooms and a pool considered tiny by today's standards. Christensen writes with tenderness but no sentimentality about the old ship and about aging human characters, too. Having played together for more than 40 years, the elderly members of the Sabra String Quartet--Miriam; Isaac, her co-founder and ex-husband; Jakov; and Sasha, "the one she'd always had a crush on"--know they are nearing the end of their run. Based in Israel, the quartet is aboard to debut a work called "The Six Day War" composed by fellow passenger Rivka Weiss, whose wealthy husband owns a share in the ship. Crotchety and kind, sometimes both at once, Miriam is the novel's strongest character, expressing the quicksilver nature of human emotions: Even as her passion for Sasha re-erupts into a full-blown septuagenarian love affair, she finds herself distracted by her scratchy yet deep familial love for Isaac. Miriam befriends 36-year-old Christine, a hardworking Maine farmer's wife whose successful journalist friend Valerie is on a working vacation. Luxuriating in food, drink, and warm weather, Christine re-examines her life choices while Valerie, who's paying for their room, tries gathering information on the ship's uncooperative crew for her "book about workers." Belowdeck, executive sous chef Mick is caught between his sense of professional duty and a multicultural staff in revolt against horrible working conditions. Then the ship's engines fail, along with its electricity and plumbing. While Miriam dryly jokes about icebergs, what's begun as an idyll at sea, at least for the passengers, becomes a crisis. Soon divisions between decks blur and relationships reconfigure.An entertaining mashup of Ship of Fools and Titanic.

    COPYRIGHT(2018) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from May 1, 2018
    Food is Christensen's muse in her witty memoirs, including How to Cook a Moose (2015), and in her delectable novels, a passion brought to boil in this initially wry and ebullient, gradually catastrophic ship-of-fools tale. The Queen Isabella's final voyage to Hawaii is a tribute to its first in 1957, from its vintage decor to dressing for dinner and retro cocktails and cuisine. Christine is thrilled to have escaped the cold and hard work on her farm in Maine to join her New York friend, Valerie, a furiously professional journalist, for a lark. Other passengers include Miriam, a violinist in an ardent Israeli classical quartet whose members have played together ever since they fought in the 1967 Six-Day War. Mick, an ambitious Hungarian sous chef, is hoping for a career boost but finds himself contending with a fierce and intent staff, especially outspoken Consuelo, angered by pending layoffs. Christensen's sharply attentive, brightly articulate characters offer trenchant analysis as the scrumptious pleasures of the cruise give way to heartache and conflict, transforming this luxurious floating world into a veritable prison, adrift with little food and much illness and angst. As the shocking denouement looms, valor, ingenuity, and transcendence arise. Christensen's gripping and insightful novel dramatizes with stealth and daring the dangerous contrariness of human nature.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2018, American Library Association.)

  • The Washington Post "Christensen is a master at drawing us into the interior lives of her characters, toeing the line between satire and sympathy. She knows the comedy and humiliation of age just as well as the energy and anxiety of youth."
  • The Wall Street Journal "[An] excellent waterborne upstairs-downstairs drama."
  • Richard Russo, author of Nobody's Fool and Empire Falls "In The Last Cruise Kate Christensen has given us a smart literary thriller whose ambitions extend well beyond its genre. It's terrifying in ways you don't expect."
  • The Seattle Times "Brilliant."
  • Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train "From the first page of The Last Cruise, it's clear that you're in the hands of a masterful storyteller. With wit and precision, Kate Christensen wrangles a large cast of characters . . . deftly turning what appears to be a comedy of manners into an intimate and moving story."
  • Booklist (starred review) "[A] wry and ebullient, gradually catastrophic ship-of-fools-tail. . . . Christensen's gripping and insightful novel dramatizes with stealth and daring the dangerous contrariness of human nature."
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