Elle.com described this debut novel as “an alternately hilarious and poignant look at the unsettled state of one woman trying to make it outside the socially sanctioned college-office-marriage trajectory.”
Karla, 22, is thrilled to be hired as an entertainer on the Sound of Music cruise ship—where the rum punch is 80 percent Kool-Aid, the ice sculptures are plastic, and her "fake it till you make it" M.O. seems adventuresome. Karla is less thrilled when new beau Jack suggests they form a singing duo on land, but by now false enthusiasm has become second nature. They embark on a not-as-glamorous-as-it-should-be career performing in the luxury hotel bars of the Middle East and China. After a thousand and one nights on the road, Karla and Jack find themselves struggling to keep their act—both personal and professional—together.
“Both an off-kilter take on the conventional coming-of-age tale and a sly commentary on the underbelly of celebrity culture, this truly original book is basically uncategorizable—blissfully so.” - Elle.com
AFTER A MONTH onboard, Karla sang with Jack, an MS Sound of Music veteran of six months. He played a T-bird in the show, a Sea Bird in the ship version. He had only two speaking lines, and one was “Nice wheels, Mandy.” That was all he’d said to Karla so far, but his British accent was delicious. He was twenty-nine.
The Cruise Director, Ava, told Karla and Jack to put something together for the predinner slot on Wight Nights’ day off. Jack played guitar and Karla had “the jazzy thing,” as Ava called it, confusing Karla’s accent for an ability to mimic Ella Fitzgerald.
“Some standards,” Ava suggested. “Something mellow.” Something to keep the passengers drinking, she meant, as they waited for first seating.
Karla and Jack met in the empty Kiddie Room to rehearse. There were large cutouts of cartoon dolphins and turtles on the walls, and yellow buckets filled with Lego pieces. There was a wide-screen TV-VCR and a complete Disney video library. They sat side by side on bright red banquettes.
“Well,” said Jack. He looked at a smiling dolphin as he spoke, and Karla studied him sideways. He smelled like a grown-up, like fresh limes and spices (Bay Rum), and his hair was dark and wavy. His acoustic guitar was polished, shiny, black.
Jack didn’t know any standards, as it turned out, so they sang folky songs. Karla had brought her mellow songbooks (James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Carole King), and he could follow, as long as she sang the melody clearly. She sang “So Far Away,” and Jack clamped down his capo, and between them was a tangible buzz, an admission: Yes, this person will do just fine. Jack didn’t cry or slink off with newlyweds—not yet, anyway—and Karla was grateful. They blended—they would learn to do it perfectly. Their voices would lock like Lego blocks, like the tiny silver buckles on Karla’s size seven character shoes.
After six weeks, Karla still felt pleasantly frazzled. Her uniform didn’t quite fit. Her pleated skirt was an inch too long, making her trip on stairs. The breast pocket of her blue blazer had pin marks from previous name tags. She was still understudying the Hound Doggin’ part and had yet to perfect the blocking. The Dance Captain, who dated the real Captain, seemed forever busy and reluctant to rehearse. Karla was following, faking it. She was adept at faking. Beyond the Kiddie Room was Malta (Malta? Yes, Monday was Malta. Tuesday was Sardinia), all clay-colored and brilliantly hot, but this didn’t concern Karla. There were such interesting things happening on the ship. She couldn’t look away.
On Hoedown Night, Jack scooped her up and held her, petticoat showing, over the glistening pool. His cowboy hat tumbled in and quickly filled and sank, and the passengers hooted. “Put me down!” Karla shrieked, not meaning it, not wanting the burly sureness of him to disappear.
They went on dates in the passenger dining room, which they were allowed to enter if (A) the tables had empty seats and (B) they dressed up—suits and dresses—and wore name tags. They had to “PR” (speak affably) and not drink too much. They had to mention at least one entertainment option onboard that evening. But with Jack it was easy. “Good evening,” he said, and instantly they were his, the couples from Bournemouth and Bromley and Slough. The questions were predictable: place of birth, trajectory onto the ship, musical training, favorite Broadway show, and Karla, part of the package, eventually charmed them, too.
“You don’t really sound American,” they said, and this pleased her. She’d taken him on, absorbed some of his tricks, the patterns of his speech. Her questions went down now, instead of up.
Karla had been dating someone named Arthur back in Boston, a composer from the New England Conservatory, but this ceased to concern her. She told herself this was a common ship phenomenon, the ship being a parallel but separate universe. It was something she couldn’t possibly explain to anyone left behind. From time to time she felt an uncomfortable stab of guilt, usually when she spoke to her parents from the pay phone in Corsica. At those times the ship world seemed ridiculous—a bad prop, like the Pink Ladies car they danced around in Hound Doggin’. During rough seas it threatened to roll off its blocks and careen downstage.
Most of the time, however, Karla’s parallel universe theory was convincing. The days were so long and the tiny bunks were like coffins and the need to have a body near was just, for both Karla and Jack, necessary. They soon left toothbrushes and lint pick-ups in each other’s cabins, and their predinner set became a biweekly event. Their repertoire grew, and they received mild, distracted applause. They learned “Both Sides Now” and “You’ve Got a Friend.” They added “Get Back” and “Under the Boardwalk” for contrast. Jack told a joke or two in between songs, and the passengers, who recognized him from Pool Deck quizzes and Ring Toss competitions, laughed politely.
Jack renewed his contract. Karla renewed, too, and together they sailed to the Caribbean. Arthur the Boyfriend stopped sending faxes to the bridge marked “Karla the Entertainer, Read This Please.”
On days off, which they requested together, Jack and Karla ran on beaches, Baywatch-style, in snug, flattering swimsuits. There was sweet, fruity cocktail drinking and long, thorough sunblock rubbing and unread paperbacks from the Ship Library and a flurry of rushing to the gangway in time for duty.
At night, after the reviews, after the nightcaps in the crew bar, Karla slid into Jack’s bunk and waited for him to floss. She kissed him sweetly until his roommate fell asleep and then kissed him less sweetly. Mornings she curled against his broad, solid back and wished for the Early Bird Quiz to be canceled. She began to feel an electric eel slipping around her chest, a spark in her belly. This person will be more than fine. For the first time in a while, Karla didn’t want to be anywhere else.