I bring you a book that was a very pleasant surprise for me, and I’m happy I was given the opportunity to participate in the blog blast on the day of its publication.
The Unsinkable Greta James by Jennifer E. Smith
An indie musician reeling from tragedy reconnects with her father on a week-long cruise in this tale of grief, fame, and love from bestselling author Jennifer E. Smith.
Just after the sudden death of her mother – her most devoted fan – and weeks before the launch of her high-stakes second album, Greta James falls apart on stage. The footage quickly goes viral and she stops playing. Greta’s career is suddenly in jeopardy – the kind of jeopardy her father, Conrad, has always warned her about.
Months later, Greta – still heartbroken and very much adrift – reluctantly agrees to accompany Conrad on the Alaskan cruise her parents had booked to celebrate their fortieth anniversary. It could be their last chance to heal old wounds in the wake of shared loss. But the trip will also prove to be a voyage of discovery for them both, and for Ben Wilder, a charming historian who is struggling with a major upheaval in his own life.
In this unlikeliest of places – at sea and far from the packed venues where she usually plays – Greta must finally confront the heartbreak she’s suffered, the family hurts that run deep, and how to find her voice again.
Jennifer E. Smith is the author of nine books for young adults, including The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight and Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between, both of which have recently been adapted for film. She earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and her work has been translated into thirty-three languages. She currently lives in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter at @JenEsmith or visit her at
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
‘This book is a very special one for me. It’s my tenth novel, but my first one for adults, so it feels like a debut in many ways, and I’ve never been prouder of anything I’ve written. I may not be a rock star, and we may not be in a packed music venue with all its energy and immediacy, but I think what happens between writers and readers is something even more profound, something quieter and more personal. So whether this is the first you’ve heard of me, or you’ve grown up along with my books, I’m endlessly grateful to you for choosing to spend time with Greta. It means the world’ – Jennifer Smith
My thanks to Quercus and NetGalley for the ARC copy of this book, which I freely chose to review, and for the opportunity to participate in the blog blast on the day of its release.
Jennifer E. Smith is an author well-known for her YA novels, but this is the first book I read by her, and although I can’t comment on how it compares to her previous work, I loved this one.
The book’s description is very accurate and gives a good idea of what to expect, at least in general terms. It is an adult coming-of-age story, a category that keeps popping up on my reading list recently, and that, so far, has been full of pleasant surprises. Here we have several adult coming-of-age stories, in fact. Apart from the story of Greta, the unsinkable musician of the title (as she proves to be by the end), who has to learn to see things from other people’s perspective, to accept her loss and heartbreak, and to discover that even our dreams are not perfect; we also discover the story of her father, Conrad, who has to face the same loss and make peace with a daughter who challenges his way of life and his dreams; and Ben, a man who is living a dream he never truly believed in and has to pay a hefty price for it. The novel explores family relationships (the stories families tell about themselves, the roles the different members adopt, and how those change), loss (of a close relative, of a relationship, of a dream, of the capacity to create…) and the guilty feelings that often accompany it, different choices and lifestyles (family versus career, dreams versus security), fame and the lack of privacy that comes with it, the role of parents in encouraging their children’s dreams and giving them wings (or not), different concepts of love, the beauty of nature and music and the healing powers of both…
Greta, the central character, is a strong woman, even if we meet her at a low point, a moment when she is going through a deep crisis. She has not only lost her mother and had a public meltdown during a concert, but she is also trying to recover from the breakup from her relationship with her boyfriend and producer, the most stable romantic relationship she’d ever had. Although the story is told in the third person and in the present tense (it felt a bit odd, to begin with, but I quickly forgot about it, and considering most of it takes place in a week and in almost real-time, it feels quite apt) from Greta’s point of view, through her memories and her conversations we get to learn a lot of what happened to get her where she is now, no matter how hard she tries not to think about it. It is very strange, considering that I have hardly anything in common with the character but I really liked her and connected with her from the start, and I often found myself nodding at her comments and reflections, and feeling that many of her words could very well apply to me. The protagonist is far from perfect; she can be obstinate and often refuses to consider things from anybody else’s perspective, but she is hurting so badly and is trying so hard to keep going and to make amends, that it is impossible not to feel for her and cheer her on. The same is true for the rest of the characters. The two couples who have been her parents’ friends forever and travel with them are very different but also very likeable. Pritee, a young girl Greta meets at the beginning of the cruise, is wonderful (and we can easily imagine young Greta when we see this girl’s enthusiasm and zest for life); Ben, the love interest, is a genuinely nice guy, with his own problems but always happy to try and be there for Greta as well; her brother, Asher, is the complete opposite of her and nonetheless a thoroughly decent man, who deeply cares for his family; even her ex-boyfriend sounds quite caring (if far from perfect). And Conrad, her Dad… Well, this man and his interactions with his daughter are the heart of the novel and are both, heartbreaking and heart-warming. There are so many things unsaid between them, and so much hurt, but…
Let me not forget Alaska. Most reviewers comment on the beautiful depiction of Alaska and say they felt like dropping everything to go there. I have wanted to visit it for quite a while, and now I am more determined than ever. Both Alaska and the ship (it’s not a boat, and those who read the book will know why I say that) play important parts in the novel, providing the perfect setting, full of awe-inducing and unforgettable experiences; a sanctuary where the protagonists can have the necessary breathing space and break free from their everyday lives for long enough to confront some hard truths and start anew.
Smith’s writing flows easily, and she excels at describing experiences, feelings, sensations, in a lyrical and compelling manner. There are very sad and moving moments (tissues are recommended), funny interludes, and tender and joyful scenes that will make readers smile. The book is full of eminently quotable gems, but as I have only read an ARC copy, I am aware there might be some changes in the final edition. I decided that I would only share a few of the fragments I had highlighted, as a taster.
Here, Greta is talking about her mother to one of her mother’s friends:
“Also, she made the worst coffee. Like, seriously bad. And she had no street smarts. She’d come to New York and act like she was in a musical, like the whole world is singing along with her. And… she left me. She left all of us, but it feels like she left me most of all, and I know that’s completely self-centered, but it’s how I feel. I hate that she’s gone. I really, really hate it.”
That moment, that phone call, that missed opportunity: all of it is as elemental to their lives as this glacier is to the beach, huge and imposing and receding so slowly, so gradually, that you might be forgiven for assuming it would be here forever.
Greta and her Dad are talking about Ben and his family responsibilities:
“Everyone has baggage,” he says. “Even you. Just because yours is a different shape and size doesn’t mean it’s not heavy too.”
“Maybe the point isn’t always to make things last,” he says. “Maybe it’s just to make them count.” (Another one of Conrad’s wise comments).
I felt the ending was perfect. It has a touch of whimsy and openness that appealed to me because rather than leaving things unresolved (some readers would have preferred more clarity, but I didn’t mind at all), it ends on a hopeful note, full of possibilities. You know that whatever might come next, Greta will be OK and will remain unsinkable.
In summary, this is a novel I would recommend to anybody who enjoys stories with a strong female protagonist, especially one going through a difficult and challenging period in her life, full of interesting characters and real-life emotions. This is a novel about relationships and growing up, and it will not suit those looking for a complex plot full of adventures or intrigue. Although there is a love story of sorts, this is not the most important part of the novel, and people looking for a big romance might be disappointed, but anybody who appreciates stories about family relationships and about how they change, anybody who has experienced the loss of a parent, and particularly those who are fans of indie music and love an Alaskan setting, will enjoy this novel. Book clubs will find plenty to talk and think about in this novel as well (and the fact that one of the characters is a writer and a fan of a classic American author will add to the attraction), and although it is not squeaky-clean, there is no violence or graphic sex, and readers are left with a warm feeling. I don’t know if Smith will carry on writing for adults (although I think older YA and NA would probably enjoy this book as well), but I hope she does, although I wouldn’t mind reading her YA novels either. And I am sure those who try this one will keep on reading her as well.
Thanks to Quercus (Milly Reid in particular), to NetGalley, and of course the author, for such a lovely book, thanks to all of you for following me and reading my reviews, and remember to like, share, comment (if you feel it is worth it), but especially, keep smiling and stay safe. And keep reading!