Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Could there be a better Christmas present than a luxury Caribbean cruise?
Dublin socialite Bunny McElroy thinks not and invites her family on one for the holidays. Her husband Richard is not so sure about it, and her son Gavin and his down-to-earth wife Fiona are apprehensive about spending two weeks cooped up with his family. But even they could never imagine the havoc Bunny’s two beautiful daughters, Sarah and Jess, will cause on board.
Meanwhile Tony Kenny, a wealthy Galway businessman, fed up with his wife’s family who descend on them every Christmas, thinks a cruise is the perfect way to escape them. His timid wife Ann is nervous about it all but, as always, Tony gets his way. His children are less than enthusiastic but, as it turns out, their handsome son Jack is pleasantly surprised by the action on board and his shy sister Emily begins to come out of her shell.
Declan Jordan is terrified that his sexy mistress Alix will reveal their affair to his classy wife Cassie, so he whisks Cassie away for what he promises will be a second honeymoon. However, it turns out to be anything but . . .
This group form what they laughingly call ‘the Irish Mafia’ on board the Liberté and, between the drama and the shenanigans, there is never a dull moment!
It's been quite some time since I read a book from Irish author Pauline Lawless. I loved her earlier books but haven't had the chance to read her last two or three so I was eager to discover would I enjoy her seventh book All at Sea as much as I had the others. Recently, I had read a book partly set on a cruise ship so I was a bit wary would it just be more of the same but thankfully this was an entirely different book altogether as it follows two families and a couple as they spent Christmas on a cruise sailing through the Caribbean. The group soon dub themselves the Irish Mafia as it's often joked you can't go anywhere without meeting someone from Ireland.
All at Sea took it's time to get going as there was only what I could describe as a flurry of characters introduced within the first few chapters. There seemed to be so many people to become familiar with that I found it challenging to keep track of who was who and how they were related/connected to each other and honestly I found this to be the case the further I progressed through the book. There even more characters introduced once the cruise finally began and some had brief mentions and others we got more detail about. I think if some characters and their storylines had been left out the book wouldn't have suffered for it as more attention could have been given to the main players. Having so many people to keep track for me meant the story-lines at times spread themselves a little thinly. Within each chapter there were a lot of smaller paragraphs which led to a lot of jumping around between people so you never knew who you were going to read about. Therefore I found it confusing and difficult to settle into the story, once I did more than half way through I began to enjoy the story more.
Bunny McElroy is the queen of the Dublin social scene and married to Richard with two children, Gavin married to Fiona and Sarah who attends Trinity College. Bunny is glamorous and high maintenance and it came across fairly early on that she was held in high regard by everyone and that whatever she proposed her family members would have to acquiesce to, no questions asked. Bunny decides a change of scene is needed for Christmas. She wants to try out something that they would never do at that time of year and so a cruise is booked leaving from Florida and sailing down through the Caribbean. Little does she realise the two of weeks and rest and relaxation she had envisaged would prove to be anything but. Initially I thought Bunny was like one of those women from the Real Housewives series, someone who has everything at their fingertips and who loves her lifestyle and would hate for anything to throw that off course. She was the real matriarch who everyone looked up to and no one would dare cross her. So the fact that her daughter Sarah regularly clashes with her and doesn't care what she does, even if it gives her a bit of a reputation must be awful for Bunny given the persona she likes to portray. I had it all wrong about Bunny and didn't give her enough credit as to how clever she actually was. I thought she was manipulative and wanted everything proper and correct but really she had her family at the centre of everything she does and in a way she played a game but one which was beneficial to all and not done in a mean or nasty way.
Gavin is married to Fiona and she was by far my favourite character. With some of the other characters I felt we barely scratched the surface in getting to know them where as with Fiona I felt she was the most sensible and responsible out of every one we were focusing on. She never took anything for granted and embraced all the things the cruise offered and when things started to go belly up she was there for whoever needed help or advice. I liked how she never kept things secret for fear of the repercussions the truth would entail. If something needed to be out in the open she pondered what to do and then just went for it and it was lovely that she had her own little special secret to share. It was refreshing too that her marriage to Gavin seemed rock solid and he came across as being genuinely lovely and that the pair really cared for each other.
Jess the older sister, recently left devastated by the breakdown of her marriage comes on the holiday wanting to get away from it all but gets a lot more than she bargained for. I found Jess to be a tease and she led people on. She didn't know what she wanted in her life and probably would have been better off staying at home. By contrast to Gavin his younger sister Sarah was the total opposite and almost became like a pariah in her own family for her antics on board the ship. She arrives on board with her boyfriend Tarquin. He was so lovely and quiet and seemed totally out of his depth that I wondered what on earth he was doing with Sarah? Sarah seemed to go off the rails, pretty quickly and it was like a cry for help but I couldn't understand why given the life she led thanks to the generosity of her parents. Sarah took advantage of everything the cruise had to over in more ways than one and one could only think it would led to nothing but disaster.
The McElroy's meet the Kenny's by chance before boarding the ship and reconnect once they are settled into the cruise. The Kenny's couldn't be more different in terms of the lifestyle they lead but given they are all in such close confines on board the ship it was inevitable some connections would be made. Where as Richard didn't feature much, Dad, Tony Kenny, made himself known and I despised him throughout the story. I hated the way he spoke to wife Ann and it seemed he would rather be anywhere than on a cruise with his family, so he needed something to distract himself. He came across as being better than his family members and that he really didn't care for them all that much. His young adult children Jack and Emily only came to slight prominence towards the end of the book and I thought their storylines were rushed. Ann, the matriarch of the Kenny family couldn't have been more different to Bunny. She had been worn down after so many years with Tony and she could barely put up a fight or stand up for herself. She was timid and meek but over the course of the holiday meeting a friend might change everything and the cruise could provide her with the change, transformation and courage she so desperately needed.
Declan and Cassie Jordan are the final couple in the equation hoping for a relaxing holiday but Declan doesn't bargain that his mistress Alix will turn up on board wanting her time with him. Declan played a game, a balancing act throughout that couldn't be possible to keep up forever. I felt for Cassie that she didn't know what was going but as events unfold and there are more than a few spanners thrown in things take a dramatic turn that left me in shock.
All at Sea was a mixed bag for me I much preferred the second half of the book to the first as within the first there were too many characters being introduced and it took ages to actually get on the cruise. Given a cruise ship is such a confined space I felt there wasn't much scope for different settings which would have added relief from the repetition of daily life on board. There was too much detail of going for dinner in such and such a restaurant or what events would be done today etc. Yes it was broken up by days on shore but I found myself a bit bored by the routine of it all. The story did get much better in the later half and it became drama filled and you never knew what was going to happen on the next page but given there were so many characters I felt we never were really able to scratch beneath the surface of them all and really get to know them. Some got too much air time and others not enough. All at Sea is not my favourite read from Pauline Lawless but it is worth a read for the second half alone. The book tried to be all glitz and glamour like a racy novel and in parts it achieved this and others it didn't. If you want something to read by the poolside this summer that will pass a few hours in the sunshine then this is the book for you.
Many thanks to Caroline at Poolbeg for my copy of All at Sea to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.