Take a cruise with your estranged dad, they said. It’ll be a fun, not-at-all-awkward bonding experience, they said...
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Cruises are a fickle source of fun. If just one element is out of place—say a defective ice cream machine or someone poorly performing “Sweet Caroline” every night at the variety show—it can all fall apart. And you’ll still be stuck at sea. So just imagine the powder keg you might be facing if on top of all of that you were taking your cruise with an estranged parent. Such is the scenario Jennifer E. Smith tees up in her latest, The Unsinkable Greta James, a novel as emotionally rich and winning as one could hope for.
When we first meet the titular Greta James, an up-and-coming indie singer-songwriter, she has just been cajoled by her brother to join her father for an Alaskan cruise. The trip was originally meant to celebrate her parents’ 40th anniversary. Like her father, Greta is still wracked with grief at the loss of her mother, as well as her ensuing meltdown during her last public performance. But as she has adventures on and offboard the ship, a once icy father-daughter relationship begins to thaw, and Greta begins to find her way back to sure footing—and perhaps a new love.
I love a book that trusts its characters enough to drop them into scenarios that not only put them off-balance but actively pick at their neuroses and insecurities. The Unsinkable Greta James is a sterling addition to the tradition. Greta is a character who sings on the page, literally and metaphorically. We watch her make poor decisions (drunkenly texting an ex) and endure unexpected hurdles (tabloid PR scandal) but remain never anything less than compelling. This is just the book to provide the warmth needed to cast off the last dregs of winter!
Greta James’s meteoric rise to indie stardom was hard-won. Before she graced magazine covers and sold out venues, she spent her girlhood strumming her guitar in the family garage. Her first fan was her mother, Helen, whose face shone bright in the dusty downtown bars where she got her start. But not everyone encouraged Greta to follow her dreams. While many daydream about a crowd chanting their name, her father, Conrad, sees only a precarious life ahead for his daughter.
Greta has spent her life trying to prove him wrong. But three months after Helen’s sudden death, and weeks before the launch of her high-stakes sophomore album, Greta has an onstage meltdown that goes viral. Attempting to outrun the humiliation and heartbreak, she reluctantly agrees to accompany her father on a week-long Alaskan cruise, the very one that her parents had booked to celebrate their fortieth anniversary.
This could be the James family’s last chance to heal old wounds, and will prove to be a voyage of discovery for them, as well as for Ben Wilder, a historian also struggling with a major upheaval in his life. Ben is on board to lecture about Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, the adventure story Greta’s mother adored, and he captures Greta’s attention after her streak of dating hanger-ons. As Greta works to build up her confidence and heal, and Ben confronts his uncertain future, they must rely on each other to make sense of life’s difficult choices. In the end, Greta must make the most challenging decision of all: to listen to the song within her or make peace with those who love her.