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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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.
The Unsinkable Greta James
Greta is standing at the window of a hotel in West Hollywood when her brother calls for the third time that day. Across the street, there’s a billboard with a sleek white yacht surrounded by turquoise water, an ad for a new kind of beer, and something about it—that feeling of being adrift—makes it easier to say no when she finally picks up the phone.
“Come on,” Asher says. “It’s only a week.”
“A week on a boat.”
“It’s a ship,” he corrects.
“It’s the last thing I need right now,” Greta says, turning from the window, where the light outside is dreamy and pink. She’s just come from a photo shoot for the cover of her second album, which has been pushed to July. If it were up to Greta, she would’ve moved it back even further, but apparently, that’s no longer an option. Instead, she’d been summoned to Los Angeles to spend three days in a warehouse surrounded by flashing cameras and frowning studio execs in suits and sneakers, the pressure to get this right all over their faces.
It’s been two months since she last performed live—not since the week after her mother died, when she fell apart onstage—but everything else has continued to march ahead, the business part of things still grinding forward mostly without her.
On the desk, next to the hotel stationery, there’s a plate of chocolates with a note from the hotel manager that says, We’re so happy you’re with us. Automatically, Greta thinks of her mom, who no longer is, whose absence feels so breathtakingly final that even this is enough to make her heart drop.
“Why don’t you go?” she says to Asher, trying to imagine spending all that time on a boat with her dad. The Alaskan cruise had been her mother’s idea. It was all she talked about for nearly a year, right up until March, when an artery ruptured in her head and the whole world seemed to stop.
Now it’s only a month away. And her dad is still planning to go.
Why I love it
Model and Actress
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!
Member ratings (9,300)
Really enjoyed this quick read about the many forms that love and grief take. Loved Greta’s character and the way the ending wasn’t tied up in a tidy bow, rather left to the reader’s interpretation.
An emotional read. I liked that the relationship between Conrad and Greta was hard but honest. Did I think he needed to back off -yes- but that isn’t always the reality. Good read with hopeful ending.
St. Louis, MO
It takes a lot for a book to really get to me. And this book did. Watery eyes, a tear or two, lump in the throat & all. I’m no rock star, but I really connected with Greta & her dad. Such a good read!
I loved this book! It’s kind of like reading An Affair to Remember, though Greta James’s story & fam is a lot more interesting than Terry (Deborah Kerr). & I did imagine Ben as a rugged Cary Grant.
I blew through this book in a single evening. Something about it kept me hooked and I could not put it down. I liked the characters and how nothing was really tied up neatly, because that’s life to me