It seemed a good idea at the time. I would kidnap my 19-year-old daughter before she vanished to be an undergraduate at Harvard. I'd already conceded her for four years at St. George's, a Harry Potter-esque boarding school in Newport, nearly 200 miles from our home in New York. It was delightful to have her home consorting merrily with her older brother George, when he was visiting for a weekend from college, but I was tired of the tight female complicity with her mother who was always whisking her off to secret girls' weekends for a visit to the Brontë's House in Haworth or gallivanting to the literary festival in Jaipur (where they stole an extra three days trolling flea markets).
No sooner had Izzy graduated from St George's in May last year than I felt I was losing ground to concerts by Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift and annoying do-gooder gap-year excursions to locations anywhere but New York ...
"Hi, Dad, I'm going to Costa Rica. Just for a few weeks."
"Well, you see there's this group building houses for the poor."
"Uh, uh. Build well."
"Dad, great news, I've got an internship in Washington.
"Izzy, it's very cold in D.C. in winter, even with all the hot air gushing from the Hill."
"Well, that's just it. I'm a volunteer with Vital Voices trying to get our government to do something to stop the shocking murders and rape of women in places like the Congo. Don't you agree it's an outrage?"
"Yeah, but ... "
"But first I'm going to be in India ... "
"I suppose you and your friends are going to rebuild the Taj with your bare hands."
"Heh! There's a trek up the Himalayas and I think I need the exercise. Remember, you keep reminding I must get more exercise."
I lost every ping pong match. Having spotted a reading list in English Literature and Islamic Studies for a July course at Brown--aka hitting the party scene in Newport--I suspected that, for the last embers of summer, I'd lose her to the clash of civilizations.
The only escape I could think of was the Atlantic Ocean. Cunard's Queen Mary 2 was scheduled to sail from New York one Friday and unload its passengers a week later in Southampton. Seven days was too long for my wife Tina (Brown) to be away from feeding her newssite, the Daily Beast, but Isabel, now...Izzy was not due at Harvard until late August and, if I could convince all concerned, she could share a cabin with her father for a week on the ocean, without a rock band or worthy cause in sight. I could beat back the objection that it was now possible to cross the Atlantic in a single day with a convincing medical excuse. The surgeon who had just given me a new knee had banned me from flying for six weeks.
The timing of the Cunard crossing was perfect too. I was due at the Hay Festival for the June paperback publication of My Paper Chase. I reckoned the crossing would satisfy Izzy's travel lust and the festival itself would surely appeal to her literary curiosity. Who, I reasoned, could turn aside from Hay tantalizers: the uncensored life of Jane Austen! Beethoven was one-sixteenth black! Sex and Stravinsky!
. . .
And so we set to sea. Instead of sweating through New York's ghastly airports, it's exhilarating to take a taxi from our apartment to a downtown pier and, 30 minutes later, find seclusion in a midships cabin. We stack (competing?) piles of books on bedside tables. On top of Izzy's, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot and The Carrie Diaries by Candace Bushnell, on mine Paul Berman's Flight of the Intellectuals and Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes' novel of a Marine company in the Vietnam war.
It's a sublime evening as we walk the breezy length of deck seven to the Princess Grill for a father-daughter date, a tête-à-tête, perhaps, on George Eliot versus Jane Austen. "Let me show you to your table," says the maître d', courteously proffering a chair to Izzy. Who are the four diners already seated? My heart sinks.
The two well-dressed couples of advanced years beam a welcome. Any hope I have of keeping Izzy to myself vanishes in a buzz of conversation. Izzy, alas, is the instigator, exhibiting more good manners than her grouchy father. I brood that she may be the victim of a genetic disorder for gregariousness passed on from my talkative father, a gene I am furiously suppressing as the conversation turns to where each couple met, and what they severally think of the Queen Mary.
Walking back to the cabin through gently rolling corridors, Izzy talks about what she's picked up at dinner while I resolve to have an urgent conversation with the maître d' about finding a table for two. Izzy, the great conciliator in our family, worries that we will offend our new companions.