One of our recommended books is Swan Song by Lisa Alther


An Odyssey

A new novel, funny, wise, moving, true, as only Lisa Alther can write (“she had me laughing at 4 in the morning” –Doris Lessing), set on a cruise ship, about a woman, a doctor in charge of the ship’s clinic, recovering from the loss of her longtime female lover, a much-admired writer, and coping with the high-wire madcappery of cruise ship life as she reckons with her past and feels her way into the future.

Dr. Jessie Drake, in her mid-sixties, following the sudden deaths of her parents and Kat, her partner of twenty years, has fled the Vermont life she has known for decades.In an effort to escape the oppressive constancy of grief,

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A new novel, funny, wise, moving, true, as only Lisa Alther can write (“she had me laughing at 4 in the morning” –Doris Lessing), set on a cruise ship, about a woman, a doctor in charge of the ship’s clinic, recovering from the loss of her longtime female lover, a much-admired writer, and coping with the high-wire madcappery of cruise ship life as she reckons with her past and feels her way into the future.

Dr. Jessie Drake, in her mid-sixties, following the sudden deaths of her parents and Kat, her partner of twenty years, has fled the Vermont life she has known for decades.In an effort to escape the oppressive constancy of grief, she accepts a job from an old flame from her residency in New York City’s Roosevelt Hospital, and agrees to assist Ben as the ship’s doctor on a British liner. Jessie boards in Hong Kong, and, as the Amphitrite sails throughout Southeast Asia and the Middle East, cruise ship antics ensue. Jessie is lulled back into a long-ago romance with the ship’s co-doctor, and both she and her new/old beau become enmeshed with the ship’s lead (female) singer/entertainer. Among the passengers who fling socialized behavior aside on the high seas: a former Florida beauty queen (Miss Florida Power and Light) on a second honeymoon with her husband, as she causes high-velocity scandal, while juggling onboard affairs with a suicidal golf pro, and a defrocked priest hired as one of the liner’s gentleman hosts, until she vanishes–poof!–from the ship off the coast of Portugal . . . As the ship sails through the Gulf of Aden and into a possible hijacking by Somali pirates, Jessie retreats into her lover’s journals, written during her final months, journals filled with sketches of potential characters, observations on life and love–as well as drafts of a long new poem in progress, “Swan Song,” that seems to be about being in love with someone else, someone new. As Jessie’s grief turns to suspicion about the woman she thought she knew so well, her illumination of the poem’s meaning begins to lift the constraints of the past and make clear the way toward the future.

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  • Knopf
  • Hardcover
  • June 2020
  • 240 Pages
  • 9780525657545

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About Lisa Alther

Lisa Alther is the author of Swan SongLisa Alther was born and grew up in Tennessee. She has written eight novels, among them Kinflicks, a feminist coming-of-age chronicle. Her other books include Original Sins, Other Women, Bedrock, and a book of conversations between Alther and the painter Françoise Gilot (About Women). Alther’s books have been published in seventeen languages and have appeared on best-seller lists worldwide. She lives in Vermont and Tennessee.


Chapter 3

Reverse Cowgirl

“This is your captain speaking. It’s a lovely afternoon here on the Arabian Sea. The waters are calm, with just the slightest swell, and a gentle breeze from the northwest is keeping the temperature balmy on deck. I think you would be hard-pressed not to agree with me that it’s a glorious season to be seaborne—and a marvelous day simply to be alive!”

As she ate spinach ravioli in the officers’ dining room, Jessie smiled at Captain Kilgore’s British accent, combined with his un-British rhapsodies about the weather. His daily noontime commentaries usually sounded like bad bucolic poetry. At age forty-six, he had recently married for the first time—a younger French woman who sold Hermès scarves in a boutique on board. She was always decked out in her wares, and she ran workshops to teach women passengers four dozen ways to tie their scarves, like sailors learning their knots. The captain appeared here and there around the ship all day long, sporting a goofy grin. He was so besotted with his new wife that it was a wonder he could steer the ship in a straight line.

Loud laughter erupted from a table in the corner, at which huddled four bridge officers in white uniforms and a young East Indian woman who worked behind the purser’s desk. Clearly the men were vying for her favors. The male to female ratio among the staff, officers, and crew was about five to one, so the women on board were wielding unaccustomed power. Since each officer had his own cabin, they were prime targets. Even if they had wives back home, many of the men had no scruples about also having what were called “ship mistresses.” The women themselves enjoyed the spacious cabins and the gifts from the duty-free boutiques—and hopefully the illicit lovemaking, as well.

The ship itself was organized like the British Empire. On the top decks were the suites that housed aristocrats, film stars, politicians, and wealthy businessmen. On the decks below were the commoners who had saved for years to afford their passage. And below sea level, crammed four into each windowless cabin, were the people who did all the work, most from the Philippines, though the cruise literature stated that the crew represented some sixty-five countries.

Returning to her cabin, Jessie watched out her window as the skyline of Dubai gradually appeared on the horizon. She was listening to Otis Redding sing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” through earbuds attached to her iPhone. Kat had also loved this song. Jessie had listened to it several times a day ever since her death. It certainly summed up Jessie’s current predicament.

The clinic was currently closed because half the passengers were disembarking in Dubai to fly home, and the other half were going on shore excursions. Captain Kilgore had already emphasized over the loudspeaker that many new passengers from northern climes would no doubt be bringing viruses on board—instead of acknowledging that his ship had already become a hothouse for norovirus. The Amphitrite should probably have been flying a black flag, like the plague ships in the fourteenth century.

Dubai was wedged between the desert and the ocean. A mist of salt spray and fine sand shrouded it in a tremulous haze. As the ship slowly approached the port, dozens of giant skyscrapers seemed to rise right up out of the sea like a shimmering mirage. The tallest building in the world pierced this haze like a spear. Alongside it sat lower buildings, one built to resemble the wind-swollen sail of a dhow.

Using its side thrusters, the ship sidled up to the quay. Seamen appeared fore and aft to attach long rope cables the thickness of Jessie’s forearm to the cleats. Then they placed round collars of tin around the ropes to prevent rats from scurrying up them into the holds. If someone had only thought to put collars around mooring ropes in the fourteenth century, mused Jessie, rats with fleas that carried the plague couldn’t have spread it. There would have been no Black Death. For want of a few thousand tin disks, 25 million people had died.

Jessie retrieved from her desk the handout from the purser about which body parts needed to be concealed in Dubai—as though the sight of her swollen ankles in her white nurse’s oxfords might drive the local men into a frenzy of lust. It seemed that shoulders and knees were forbidden in Dubai, so no shorts or tank tops. Apparently the head and hair could remain uncovered. Also, the sheet warned, no public displays of affection, and especially not homosexual ones, which could result in imprisonment or deportation. Living for so many years in Vermont, where homosexuals were regarded as normal everyday taxpaying citizens, had shielded Jessie from the reality almost everywhere else. But this cruise was serving to remind her that she and her friends might yet be herded into boxcars or machine-gunned into mass graves.

This condemnation of homosexuality in Dubai seemed especially hypocritical coming from people who had owned slaves until 1963. A blogger on the Internet that morning had claimed that the elite here paid their former slaves to attend their parties because it was a status symbol to display how many you had once owned. The blogger also claimed that on the desert outskirts of this city stood concrete barracks with no air-conditioning that housed 300,000 men from India and Bangladesh, lured here with the promise of high wages for construction jobs. When these wages didn’t materialize, they were unable to return home because their passports had been confiscated by their employers. Apparently most of the amazing structures composing the Dubai skyline had been built by such captive labor.

But Jessie reminded herself that if she insisted on itemizing the crimes of every port at which the ship docked, she would just make herself miserable. Kat had trained her to notice the broader political implications of her experiences. But their children, Anthony and Cady, Martin and Malcolm, hypnotized by tiny electronic screens that merely reflected them back to themselves smaller than life, had no such difficulties. And if she wanted to rejoin the carefree, she would probably do better to concentrate on the theme of life as a Mardi Gras in this Las Vegas of the Persian Gulf.

Jessie pulled on cargo pants and a long-sleeved khaki shirt with many tabs and flaps and zippers, plus a wide-brimmed hat with a chin strap. Her face would be her only flesh on display for the ravaging males of Dubai. Looking into her mirror, she was disappointed to discover that she resembled Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark more than Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen. She noted with dismay a new splotch of sun damage that had just appeared on her right cheek, joining several others. The only good thing about her increasing number of facial wrinkles was that they concealed some of the dark spots. Apparently all those childhood summers on the glaring waters of Lake Champlain were now staking their claim.

She boarded a shuttle bus in the bustling port, which was stacked high with multicolored metal shipping containers, like a child’s Lego project. In the city, she toured a museum in an old adobe fort with exhibits that concerned the founding of the town by fishermen and smugglers. Antique photos showed robed and veiled women carrying huge pottery water jars on their heads in the spot where the tallest building in the world now loomed. You had to admire whatever forces had conspired to allow the women of Dubai to abandon their giant water jugs for indoor plumbing, and to trade their burkas for Versace and Armani.

Jessie rode a converted fishing boat across a creek to the gold souk, where she wandered along the main corridor, surrounded by tourists inflamed with lust for the gold gewgaws that filled the display windows and flowed out the shop doors as though from Ali Baba’s caves. She spotted Ben Armstrong, wearing khakis and a black polo shirt. He had a cleft in his chin, as well as dimples in his cheeks when he smiled. Before their affair, she had fantasized about caressing those facial craters with her tongue. The reality had been disappointing. His thick stubble had chafed her tongue, lips, and cheeks like coarse sandpaper. That was the trouble with trying to enact your fantasies. Either they turned out to be boring, or the gymnastics required to achieve them proved impossible to perform without dislocating a limb. She recalled her first and last threesome, in Vermont during commune days, which had concluded with sheepish apologies all around. She had long since discovered that it was more arousing to leave the imaginary within your imagination.

Ben’s problem was that he was too good-looking. Women had always pursued him, so he had never learned how to be agreeable. He now had four disgruntled ex-wives and six estranged children to support, without a clue as to why the wives had all left him. He had taken the Amphitrite gig because it paid hardship wages and there was almost nothing to squander them on—if you stayed away from the ship’s casino and from Dubai’s gold souk. You also had no expenses for rent, food, clothing, utilities, health care, or liability insurance. In addition, staff were forbidden to fraternize with “guests,” as the cruise line insisted their employees refer to passengers. So even if Ben yearned for wife number five, he wasn’t likely to corral her without getting thrown off the ship.

“So how’s it going, Jessie?” Ben sauntered toward her. He held up both hands, palms out, to indicate that he knew a welcoming hug between them might get them both deported. “Did you ever imagine there was this much gold in the entire solar system?”

“It’s pretty amazing, all right.”

“Are you going to buy something?”

“God no!”

Ben laughed. “You’re probably the only woman I know who would say that.”

“I’m trying to get rid of stuff, not acquire more.”

“I could buy you a memento of our cruise—a bauble for your charm bracelet?”

“Save it for your alimony payments.”

“That’s what I’ve always loved about you, Jessie. No muss, no fuss, no bother. How come we never got married?”

“It might have something to do with the fact that I’m a lesbian.”

“You’re no lesbian—if my memory serves me correctly. You must be at least bisexual?”

Jessie smiled. “I’m not anything anymore—just a grieving widow. The children nowadays have invented all these labels— tranny, cis, shemale, boi, bisexual, pansexual, polyamorous, queer, top, bottom, nonbinary. As far as I’m concerned, they should do and be whatever they please. But they need to get over themselves and realize that Syrian refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean.”

“Yikes!” said Ben. “Somebody’s grumpy today.”

“Well, it’s just that all that gender-identity stuff isn’t really very important because everyone’s body—whatever its gender or nongender—still collapses and decays in the end.”

“Hmmm. So you’re sad, and I’m sad, too. How about a little mutual comfort in the night?”

“Not gonna happen,” Jessie assured him. The thing about having grown up in Vermont in the seventies, in that golden age after the invention of the Pill and before the arrival of HIV, was that you had already tried everything, so you lacked the curiosity that might propel you into disastrous new explorations. “And you know perfectly well that if you had me again, Ben, you’d soon grow tired of me, just as you have of all the others. That would make me furious. I might take a scalpel to you, and then have to spend my final years in prison, being raped by scary women. So it’s better if we just stay friends.”

Ben laughed. “Yow! I see your point!”
“But you’re very sweet to pretend that you want me. Especially since I feel about as desirable right now as a corpse on an autopsy slab.”

Ben grimaced.

“I suggest you get yourself a massage at the spa instead,” said Jessie. “There are some lovely women there with very strong hands.”

“I already tried that. My masseuse wanted to marry a rich doctor and move to the States. By the time she got through with me, I almost agreed. But I need a fifth wife almost as much as I need a pet skunk.”

Excerpted from Swan Song by Lisa Alther. Copyright © 2020