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The Unsinkable Greta James


The Unsinkable Greta James

Bestselling young adult author Jennifer E. Smith makes her adult fiction debut with THE UNSINKABLE GRETA JAMES, a tender and emotionally resonant story of families, life trajectories, and the claustrophobia of facing these concepts and more aboard a cruise ship.

Greta James has been playing sold-out venues for years, amassing indie and pop fans alike and gracing the covers of more than a few music magazines. But no sold-out show or crossover hit can match the viral fame of a devastating night gone completely wrong. Only a few months ago, Greta lost her mother to a sudden aneurysm, and weeks later she put her career at risk when she broke down on stage after debuting a new and uncharacteristically tender song.

With her sophomore, make-it-or-break-it album only weeks away, Greta’s public relations team and manager have assigned her an impossible task: get over that night, put out a new hit song, and make sure that the world knows she’s ready to rock. Greta loves what she does, and she takes great comfort in the freedom and excitement that come with a life on the road and in the studio, so these last few months have totally unmoored her. What better way to snap back to reality than a surprise cruise with her estranged father? Yes, you read that right.

"As a longtime fan of Smith’s young adult fiction, I knew to expect certain elements of her writing: pitch-perfect dialogue, a dash of sentimentality and a seriously beautiful character arc. I am pleased to report that THE UNSINKABLE GRETA JAMES has all of this and so much more."

Before her death, Greta’s mother planned the trip of a lifetime on an Alaskan cruise with her husband, Conrad, and their best couple friends, the Fosters and the Blooms. Neither Greta nor her brother, Asher, can bear to think of their father tagging along as an uncomfortable fifth wheel. Asher has a wife and three children to care for, whereas Greta has a flexible schedule and an unholy amount of frequent flier miles. The choice of who will accompany Conrad is clear, but there’s an obvious issue.

While Asher, with his steady job and lifestyle, is Conrad’s favorite, he and Greta have always butted heads. Conrad used to be his daughter’s biggest fan when she was (poorly) strumming away at a guitar in the garage. But now that music has become her life, he struggles to accept her lifestyle...which is far less “rock star” than you might think, but still not the calm, suburban life he wants for her. With the two trapped on an 11-deck floating hotel/mall/entertainment center and enough bitter emotions to fill 10 cruise ships, what could possibly go wrong?

As Greta, Conrad and their family friends set off for Alaska, Greta prepares for all the usual fanfare of a cruise: bottomless buffets, lots of alcohol and some cringeworthy entertainment. What she doesn’t prepare for is the other pseudo-celebrity on board: Ben Wilder, the internationally bestselling writer of a fictionalized tale of the life of Jack London, author of THE CALL OF THE WILD. Ben is recently separated from his wife, desperately missing his two girls and, like Greta, feeling a bit lost in his career. He has secured a second book deal, but as Greta knows, sophomore attempts can be particularly grueling, not to mention unfairly judged. As Greta slowly thaws the ice between her and her father, Smith charts a spectacularly tender and perfectly messy journey through glaciers, canneries, variety nights and the depths of the human heart.

As a longtime fan of Smith’s young adult fiction, I knew to expect certain elements of her writing: pitch-perfect dialogue, a dash of sentimentality and a seriously beautiful character arc. I am pleased to report that THE UNSINKABLE GRETA JAMES has all of this and so much more. In YA fiction, a lot of the narrative is driven by the height and newness of the emotions, felt so strongly by young people experiencing them for the first time. This kind of writing can often translate poorly to adult fiction, where characters are expected to know more, predict more and handle more.

But here, Smith has maintained all of the emotional resonance of her YA novels and blended it with some deeply explored, complicated backgrounds and the perspective that comes with growing up. The result is a cast of gorgeously drawn characters who are messy, flawed and relatable set against a narrative that not only pushes them out of their comfort zones, but gives the grace and compassion to fall out of step, take a breath and come back stronger, more loving and loveable than ever before. The book offers its readers and characters the unabashed permission to dream, and there’s something truly transporting about that.

Greta is one of those characters who is just the perfect blend of unique and relatable, tender and wild. You may not be a rock star or someone who jets off to new cities and studios every week, but Smith manages to make Greta’s world so accessible and her love of music so universal that you can almost predict how she will react to any given interaction. Still, the tension and surprises never let up.

Similarly, Conrad leaps off the page with his quiet grief, his disappointment in his mistakes, and his desperate hope for Greta to just be happy, safe and loved. This is obviously a story about coming together, but nothing about their relationship is overwritten, predictable or gratuitous. Smith is a keen observer of the human heart, and her chronicling of their relationship is as gripping as any thriller.

We’ve learned from books like Amanda Eyre Ward’s THE JETSETTERS and Elyssa Friedland’s THE FLOATING FELDMANS that cruise ships are worlds of dichotomies: endless buffets and bikinis, hangovers and motion sickness, crowds of strangers and the oppressive closeness of your family. THE UNSINKABLE GRETA JAMES shows us that life exists in these opposites. As much as our families can misunderstand and embarrass us, they’re often our most important fan clubs. I don’t care what Jennifer E. Smith writes next, whether it be YA or adult fiction. I just know I want more of it.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 4, 2022

The Unsinkable Greta James
by Jennifer E. Smith

  • Publication Date: May 9, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0593358295
  • ISBN-13: 9780593358290