Before Corazon Books contacted me and asked me whether I would be interested in reviewing Ursula Bloom’s Wonder Cruise, I had never even heard of the author before. It sounded like a novel by one of those wonderful English authors who wrote and published in the first half of the last century – Mary Stewart, Angela Thirkell, Barbara Pym -, so I said yes immediately. When the book arrived I was a bit worried because of the cover, but as soon as I started reading I knew I had nothing to worry about. Although it has an unfortunate cover, Wonder Cruise is an absolutely delightful book; it’s as charming as it’s witty. I could hardly believe that an author who wrote like this has become a forgotten author. Especially since Ursula Bloom wrote far over 500 novels. Yes, you read correctly – over 500. She’s even in the Guinness Book of Records.
Written and set in the 1930s, Wonder Cruise tells the story of Ann Clements. You could call it a story of awakening and transformation. Ann is a spinster of 35, with little hope of marriage or an otherwise fulfilled life. She works at an office, doing tedious, boring jobs. In her private life, she is pretty much under the thumb of her older brother Cuthbert, a pompous, self-righteous clergyman who manipulates Ann constantly. It doesn’t look as if there was a lot of hope for Ann’s future but, from the first page on we know that Ann’s a very keen observer and someone who is very much aware of the beauty surrounding her, and we instantly root for her.
She’s aware that she doesn’t like her life and her work but she doesn’t think it could change.
That was life at the office.
It went on and on and on for years, as it would go on and on, Ann felt, long after she was dead. It was a place that she had been sucked into by the giant machinery of life. An intricate pattern of living, and always dismally the same. You could not escape it.
Then something wonderful happens. Ann wins a lot of money in a sweepstake and suddenly life has promise. However, there’s Cuthbert to deal with. He wants her to save the money, so his own daughter will have something to fall back on. Ann’s torn between her feelings of duty and her yearning for another life.
Until this actual moment she had not realised that she was sick of digging, and of doing the same thing in the same way day after day. She had not realised that Mrs. Puddock’s rooms were awful, and that Monday washing, Tuesday ironing, Wednesday mending, Thursday hair-wash were much like a pair of handcuffs set like shackles on her wrists.
Once she’s conscious of her situation and the manipulations of her brother, she is able to break free. She books a cruise along the Mediterranean coast. The ship lands at Marseille, Gibraltar, Naples, Malta, Venice . . . With every kilometer, Ann becomes more herself, discovers that she is still young and attractive. For the first time, she enjoys herself.
There was the scent of tuber roses, and of lilies and wistaria all blending together. It was far more beautiful than anything she had ever imagined, far lovelier than any picture she had seen, even the one inside the portal of the steamship company in Cockspur Street.
How terribly far away that seemed – and was!
After a few weeks of enjoyment, Ann has to ask herself fundamental questions: Who is she really and what does she want? Can she ever go back to her dull life of routine? And what about the men she meets? Is there one among them that she could love?
I’ll stop here and let future readers find out from themselves how Ann answers these questions.
The descriptions of the various settings are so lovely and spot-on. I’ve been to many of these places and the way Ursula Bloom described them, shows that she knew these places very well. Ann is a delightful character. She’s endearing, naïve but enthusiastic and a witty and keen observer. It’s great fun to read her take on the various people who are on this cruise with her. Bloom enjoys poking fun at stuck-up, uptight Brits who treat the places and people they meet like artifacts in a museum and constantly complain about the heat and the food. Some of the scenes are really funny.
Wonder Cruise has been such a discovery. It offers intelligent, charming entertainment, features an endearing main character, and is full of witty observations and enthralling descriptions. I’d love to read more of Ursula Bloom’s books.