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The Jetsetters

Review

The Jetsetters

Renowned for her ability to weave dark secrets into literary fiction that is as enjoyable as it is thought-provoking, Amanda Eyre Ward returns with THE JETSETTERS. Perfect for readers of THE VACATIONERS, her latest novel is both a riveting romp through the Mediterranean and the heart-rending story of one dysfunctional family’s journey to peace and acceptance.

Our protagonist, Charlotte Perkins, is a 71-year-old widow with a fondness for bold colors, printed dresses, Barefoot wine and her three adult children: Lee, Cord and Regan. When we meet Charlotte, she is reeling from the loss of her best friend, Minnie, who has just died of a heart attack. Charlotte and Minnie ruled the streets of Savannah, Georgia, dashing from one activity to the next, cackling in the back rows of their church, and downing enough wine to admit their deepest secrets and fantasies to one another. But without Minnie, Charlotte must ask herself, “What now?”

The answer comes to her one night when she sees a commercial encouraging viewers to apply to become a “Jetsetter,” a person who will win an all-expenses-paid first-class flight to Greece followed by a cruise up the Mediterranean all the way to Barcelona. Her head filled with notions of forced closeness with her not-quite-estranged but certainly distant adult children, Charlotte pens a winning essay about her very first romantic romp. Inspired by her beloved romance novels and galvanized by her own loneliness and desperation for intimacy, she writes with a fever she’s never felt before...and she wins.

"[Ward] is like a set designer who knows and uses every corner of her stage, never once pushing past the point of believability, while still managing to shock her readers and upend their expectations on nearly every page."

Charlotte’s children, though raised very closely by their mother, have all journeyed to different corners of the world, chasing different highs. Eldest daughter Lee is an “actress” of the “corpse #2” variety who is watching her dreams collapse. Where she had once celebrated even the booking of a Tampax commercial, she has now been left by her boyfriend, Jason, and is beginning to accept the end of her acting career and drug- and yoga-fueled life in Los Angeles. Cord, the middle child, is a semi-successful venture capitalist who is hiding a big secret from his family: his fiancé, Giovanni. Struggling through sobriety, Cord is desperate to unite “Holiday Cord” --- straight, just picky --- with the Cord who is ready to commit to a man he loves, despite his worries over his own abilities to stay sober and support his family. And finally we have sweet, baby-faced Regan, the only one of Charlotte’s children who seems to be doing well: she is married to good, stable Matt and has two beautiful daughters. But Regan, too, is hiding something: her marriage is crumbling...and she is not sure she cares.

Beyond their myriad secrets, the Perkins family is also plagued by memories of their husband/father, Winston, an abusive drunk whose mood dominated every moment of their lives. He died suddenly of a heart attack when the children were tweens, but his dark moods, dependence on alcohol and unnecessary meanness left both a lasting rift and a dangerous codependency between the children and their mother. Charlotte, raised by wealthy and elegant but cold parents, was always too eager to “look at the bright side” when her children were young --- often at the risk of ignoring the severity of the situation. As much as Lee, Cord and Regan love their mother, they feel abandoned by her in many ways and share the sense that they are often the ones parenting her. Spending time with her in her 70s only exacerbates this tension, revealing old childhood aches in the sun-drenched islands of Greece.

The Perkins family is full of unlikable characters. Charlotte’s wayward children have certainly made questionable, even downright unforgivable decisions, and yet their capacities for redemption are so fully realized that readers will find themselves rooting for them at every turn. Even Charlotte, who initially seems like a forgotten, sympathetic mother, comes to reveal a few flaws of her own, giving readers a “can’t look away” feeling of suspense. These family members have all wronged one another in some way, but through Ward’s careful storytelling, we are given all sides of every story and are able to relate with every character at once, an ambitious yet totally accomplished feat. Even more, she immerses us in the family’s idiosyncrasies so effortlessly that you will feel almost like an extended cousin wondering where your invite to Greece has been (I’m waiting!).

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the gorgeous settings. In addition to the glittering, absurd cruise ship with its disco lights and hilarious entertainment scenes, we are invited to taste homemade Greek honey, bask in the beaches of Malta, drink wine in Sicily, and so much more. But beyond providing travel porn, these alluring settings push the Perkinses into even more uncomfortable scenarios, showing the fullness of their personalities and interests. These scenes serve as an interesting foil for the more emotionally driven ones on the ship and create an exciting pace that will keep you turning pages long past your next sunscreen application.

Written in chapters broken up by each lavish Mediterranean destination, and interspersed with sections from the points of view of Charlotte, Lee, Cord and Regan, THE JETSETTERS is an all-encompassing portrait of a family torn apart by old and new hurts alike. The Perkinses have been through the ringer --- both as a family and individually --- and becoming jetsetters offers them the chance to come clean, to reconcile their pasts with their presents, and to reunite as a loving, happy family. With all of these characters trapped on a cruise ship together, Ward gives herself plenty of room to force conversations, revelations and painful admissions. The ship setting, which might seem like an overused trope in a thriller, becomes a literary playground here, one where Ward can push her characters to their absolute limits --- and boy does she ever. Impressively, the ship never feels claustrophobic; she is like a set designer who knows and uses every corner of her stage, never once pushing past the point of believability, while still managing to shock her readers and upend their expectations on nearly every page.

Longtime fans of the author will note that the plotline seems to be a bit of a departure from her previous novels, such as CLOSE YOUR EYES and THE SAME SKY. Even if the premise sounds unusual, and the characters unlikable, I highly recommend you give this one a try. Although there are certainly more laughs and irony here, Ward brings to THE JETSETTERS her same deft hand and talent for braiding secrets with acceptance and pain with redemption.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 6, 2020

The Jetsetters
by Amanda Eyre Ward

  • Publication Date: March 3, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 039918189X
  • ISBN-13: 9780399181894