The ascendant career of indie rock darling Greta James comes crashing down when her mother dies unexpectedly and she finds herself consumed by grief and unable to perform. On an Alaskan cruise with her father, she grapples with his disappointment in her unconventional lifestyle and meets an author named Ben who is facing his own demons.
Whew, this one hurt—but in a good way. If you’ve ever experienced the death of a parent and then had to learn how to get on with a parent you weren’t particular close to, The Unsinkable Greta James is a touching experience that will strike a chord with you. If you haven’t, it’ll still give you a warm and trenchant peek into the life of a woman struggling with deep loss and fording her way to emotional renewal ... I liked Greta as a heroine, and I loved watching her come to articulate her pain and then regain herself piece by piece. I liked honest, down to earth Conrad, who comes to understand his daughter in time. Ben and his Jack London fetish is the naturally stiffer and stodgier counterpart to Greta and feels a bit more pat as a character, but not to the point of being offensive ... The word pictures are perfect, and she neatly captures what life is like on a cruise ship ... The Unsinkable Greta James is fun, touching, sad, and warm. Beautiful all over.
Smith’s style is as smooth as an Alaskan cruise is supposed to be—though like Greta, the ship does rock and roll now and then. Smith’s characters are good and nice. She does allow for some eccentricity, as in Helen’s friend Todd, an obsessive bird watcher who longs to see some avian rarity on an ice floe. But Smith reserves nearly all the novel’s real complexity for Conrad, a man who can’t seem to overcome a certain midcentury rigidity. Greta is wary of him, and because she’s wary of him, so are we, and this is the real meat of the novel. Can these two stubborn people lay down their arms at long last and connect?
Smith’s first book for adults after eight successful young adult novels is a page-turner, smoothly written and engaging. Exploring themes of grief similar to Rebecca Serle’s One Italian Summer (2021), but through the wholly different and beautiful setting of Alaska, Smith delivers a satisfying read for book clubs, adventure lovers, and musicians.