Novelists have been especially adroit lately at upending conventional narratives, perhaps because they’re inspired by the truthy hellscape we’re living in. Yet there is still a certain pleasure in a story straightforwardly told, in alternating chapters, including each main character’s point of view. Amanda Eyre Ward’s “The Jetsetters” is one of those books, delivering a narrative of family dysfunction in which each member is a mess and everyone gets a say.
I confess I was initially put off by the premise, which sails through the Hallmark Channel into Love Boatish waters. Charlotte Perkins, a widow in her early 70s, wins a contest for a Mediterranean cruise, and invites her adult children to come along. Behavior is atrocious. Family secrets are exposed. Reckonings and reconciliations are had.
Ward has centered earlier novels around such morally fraught issues as surrogacy and immigration, and at first this novel felt like a sunny departure.
Charlotte is an avid reader of soapy romances, and when we are in her head, it can be a purple storm of banality. In her contest essay she describes her first sexual encounter at 16 with a Spanish-born, famous painter she meets in Paris (yes, that one, though, coyly, he is never named): “It may be hard to believe, but once upon a time, I was unpeeled like a banana, my rich fruit eaten raw.” The actual deflowering was a dud, but it was the first and only time in her life that Charlotte felt truly seen.
Charlotte and her rich fruit aside, each of her children is in a convenient state of crisis. Regan, described by her mother as the “overweight, thoughtful daughter,” fantasizes about killing her husband. Lee, whose birth name is Elizabeth Lear, is an unstable actress in Hollywood who has aged out of ingénue roles. Cord is a recovering alcoholic with a loving fiancé, which should be peachy except he’s afraid to tell his mother that he’s gay. Perhaps this is because he rightly intuits that she doesn’t want to hear it. Like the Picasso allusion, the Shakespearean nod feels like a name-drop without a purpose. If you’re going to reference Lear, give me some treachery — or at least a storm.
Once we board the Splendido Marveloso in Athens, Ward reveals that she has a way with humor. Here is Charlotte, fantasizing about a romantic encounter: “Oh, here she was in broad daylight, imagining her dream lover’s erection straining at his expensive gabardine slacks.” If you don’t find the phrase “expensive gabardine slacks” funny in that context, this book is not for you.
I’ve never been on a cruise, so this was a view into a world I will never visit unless you hit me on the head with a two-by-four or give me tickets for free. The author’s eye for forced fun is exquisite. The Very Hairy Chest Contest, the towel-animal lessons, the marzipan piano: All the marvels are splendido.
Beneath the surface, though, there is real darkness. Charlotte’s husband was an alcoholic bully who alternately ignored and berated his children. Even now Charlotte’s desperate mission to maintain the fiction of a happy family is more important than any psychic damage it might exact on her offspring.
As a result, her children knock about in similar versions of dishonesty and distress, which can lead to reader fatigue. The trouble with four perspectives is that you long for at least one character who has an interesting mind.
I wish Ward had not employed the tricks of lesser novelists, such as contrived cliffhangers and misdirection in order to engender suspense. Still, there is real poignancy in this novel, as wounded characters struggle to regain childhood loyalties. Ward nails how family expeditions are ruined and saved, over and over again, by fleeting moments of connection and the consensus to survive without killing one another.
It turns out that Ward is once again writing about morally fraught issues. Because the Perkins family is representative of the current American moment, showing how a childhood shaped by a neglectful bully can lead to an adulthood full of lies.