This is not a tightly written ocean-going disaster story but rather a rumination on its three main characters: executive sous-chef Mick, Israeli violinist Miriam, and Maine farmer Christine. It is Christine who frames the drama and Christine who remains our cypher in a narrative that forces to her reassess her life with her husband, Ed. It strikes Christine as complexly absurd that she has just flown across the entire country and is about to get on the famous Queen Isabella and sail to Hawaii. Christine hates cruise ships - if her best friend, Valerie, hadn't invited her, Christine would never have agreed to it. Miriam and her Sabra Quartet arrive in Long Beach after a nonstop flight to Los Angeles. They've been performing together for more than 14 years but have started to fray around the edges. Now they are flying halfway around the world to play for their billionaire friends and benefactors on this two-week cruise.
Christensen unfolds the melodrama, theatre and interpersonal power of the passengers and crew as the web of stewards attend to the guests and the professional kitchen staff changes shifts. The buffet gallery smells like a flesh carnival, "a stink of sweat and brine and steam and meat." Consuelo, Mick's new assistant chef, tells Valerie (who wants to interview the workers) that the kitchen crew have to work 16-hour days for pathetic wages, and most of their contracts are being cancelled at the end of this cruise: "they want to hire refugees to do the work we do, but for less money and longer hours."
Mick feels a deep sense of dread, not just at the aging Queen Isabella's infrastructure but also at Laurens, the officious, bullying head chef who wants recreate the menus of a once-grand ship for is last cruise. Miriam's mind drifts to the performance during cocktail hour in the main dining room. As the ship steams out to sea, pleasant thoughts do little to blunt Miriam's dread of the cramped quarters and the crowds and claustrophobia, and "all the inconveniences of shipboard life." While Christine feels a queasiness at the thought of spending two intimate close weeks together with Valerie, she's also excited at being on a raft on a pool and on a ship on a dark ocean thousands of miles from home "where anything is possible." From the strings of lights and rustling palm fronds to the pool's shimmering surface, Christine feels the ship underneath her, light but solid, and its buoyant forward momentum from "the powerful engines firing many stories below."
Christensen's novel blends shipboard romance with the crew's threats of a strike and a sudden disaster that looms over this last cruise. With supplies running out, the Isabella is set adrift in the Pacific. Once misty and amiable, "a placid pale green gently rocking bath splashed by frank sunlight," the Pacific's gentle waters, this "vast and wild void," have suddenly become much more threatening. Below deck, Mick endures the scorching heat and fiery steam, while upstairs the sconces and lights softly glow along the burnished wood floor of the promenade. As the days pass, the helpless passengers and crew are at the mercy of the elements. The Queen Isabella moans deep in her belly, an "eerie, prolonged echoing underwater squeal." There's another threat: a slowly gathering storm. Miriam recalls the line from The Tempest, the line about something "rich and strange.'
In her man-against-nature story, Christensen deconstructs the complexities of cruise-ship life, made more tolerable by the characters of Christine, Mick and Miriam. Christensen's prose is beautiful, her descriptions of the disaster frighteningly atmospheric as this tempest rolls towards the horizon, the Queen Isabella filling up with the resonating anxieties of her passengers and crew.