Niven delivers hilarious satire juxtaposed with genuine heartfelt moments. Such is typical from this writer; everything he has published is fantastic in one light or another, yet this most recent effort is his most commercially accessible as the emphasis has shifted away from a protagonist of deplorable merits. Empathy is established without the effort required for the typical vice figure. The Sunshine Cruise Company is Niven at his best, and I don’t offer those words lightly.
The book opens with Susan Frobisher preparing a violent moment for the stage. She has been working with her local theatre for a matter of years, and we meet her in the midst of creating a makeshift eyeball for the gouging scene in King Lear. This Shakespearian reference serves as a thin veil over the topic of aging, which is satirized throughout the novel.
Susan’s husband is an accountant, and they’ve been married thirty years. He’s the solitary overseer of their finances, and has a secret flat that has been converted into a sex dungeon of sorts to accommodate a secret lifestyle. When Susan is called by police and brought to the flat to identify the body of her husband under the glow of a blue neon sign that spells out the word ‘RAPIST’ she comes to find that his infidelity serves as the means to much larger problems. Barry had Susan convinced that their finances were of stable conditions, which couldn’t have been further from the truth. Surprise debt brought Susan into the reality that the bank sought to take her home.
Susan Frobisher and Julie Wickham have been the best of friends since adolescence. While Susan seemed to have had the good life with Barry, Julie can’t help but to feel some gratification that Susan’s misfortune has brought them closer to being equals in terms of monetary success. Julie works in an assisted living facility, and carries the regret of past failures dictating her contemporary circumstances. We met Julie at age sixty mopping up urine at work, wondering how such a low point has become her norm. The one friend she has made at work is the wheelchair bound Ethel. Ethel is crude, speaks her mind, and has the richest backstory that surfaces throughout the narrative in bits and pieces, “I was a singer… There was always work in the chorus line” (88). Ethel serves as the incarnation of Niven’s id (he always has a character to serve this indulgent/comic purpose). She says whatever she wants often to the disgust of her peers, and is damn funny in addition to the value of her insight. It’s when Ethel offers the advice, “it’s better to regret something you did do than something you didn’t” (89) that ultimately convinces Julie and Susan to go through with their plan to rob their small town bank and flee the country.
The episodes that follow are full of action, tension, comedy, and the tragedy of a past that is forever creeping into the present. Presented in third person, Niven highlights different characters in alternating chapters in order to present the parallel story of English police, as they make for consistent comic relief in clashing with their French counterparts. Again, the book delivers. I made the mistake of reading parts of the book in public, for I know I was caught laughing on more than one occasion.