- The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan
- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Reagan Arthur Books; 1 edition (April 3, 2012)
- ISBN-13: 978-0316185905
Who and what is the book about (back-of-the-book blurb): Grace Winter, 22, is both a newlywed and a widow. She is also on trial for her life.
In the summer of 1914, the elegant ocean liner carrying her and her husband Henry across the Atlantic suffers a mysterious explosion. Setting aside his own safety, Henry secures Grace a place in a lifeboat, which the survivors quickly realize is over capacity. For any to live, some must die.
As the castaways battle the elements, and each other, Grace recollects the unorthodox way she and Henry met, and the new life of privilege she thought she’d found. Will she pay any price to keep it?
Where and when does it take place: The Lifeboat takes place in 1914, on an Atlantic crossing from England to Boston. Most of the novel takes place aboard a lifeboat – which is overcrowded with passengers, and understocked with food and water.
What would I say to a friend who asked me about it: The Lifeboat is an intentionally slow paced psychological drama; I’ve been calling it “Twelve Angry Men in a Boat” in a nod to the film (I’m a fan of the 1957 version, starring Henry Fonda). The novel, like the film, plays on the tensions of disparate personalities cloistered together with a common goal. We see strong personalities, shifting allegiances, and the internal struggle of “common good” vs. “personal good.”
The protagonist, Grace Winter, is by her own admission (early on, in a diary entry), a calculating gold-digger. She’s an unreliable narrator, whose motives and truth may (or may not) be shielded from her husband, the other shipwreck survivors, and even the reader. I didn’t mind this ambiguity, as I understood that Grace tempered the entire narrative for her audience – those who were reading and presenting her diary as evidence for the defense in her trial on charges of murder.
The three weeks at sea that Grace describes are perhaps not as filled with physical drama as some readers would expect, but the psychological drama is high, especially when bits of Grace’s past (and present, during the trial) are woven into the narrative of the days following the sinking of the ocean liner.
Why did I read it: This book was sent to me for review consideration. Although I had hoped to read it before its publication date, I didn’t get to it until last month; in a funny coincidence, my roommate at #booktopiaVT was also reading The Lifeboat while we were in Manchester.
A few favorite passages: This excerpt, from the Prologue, really set the stage for me wondering whether Grace was telling the truth or not. Was she sane and telling the truth? sane and calculating? or, did she lose her mind during the ordeal at sea? (p. 6, ellipses are mine):
I don’t know who had the idea … that I should try to re-create the events of those twenty-one days and that the resulting “diary” might be entered as some kind of exonerating exhibit.
“In that case, we’d better present her as sane, or the whole thing will be discounted,” said Mr. Ligget tentatively, as if he were speaking out of turn.
“I suppose you’re right,” agreed Mr. Reichmann, stroking his long chin. “Let’s see what she comes up with before we decide.” They laughed and poked the air with their cigarettes and talked about me as if I weren’t there as we walked back to the courthouse where, along with two other women, named Hannah West and Ursula Grant, I was to stand trial for my life. I was twenty-two years old. I had been married for ten weeks and a widow for over six.
What else can I add: Charlotte Rogan read a bit from The Lifeboat at a gathering of the New England Independent Booksellers Association. She said that the genesis for The Lifeboat was reading about a 19th century shipwreck case in one of her husband’s criminal law textbooks; she’s intrigued by moral dilemmas and the “lifeboat model of asset allocation.”
A number of discussion questions for The Lifeboat are on Charlotte Rogan’s website. Don’t read them until you’ve read the novel, though, as some may be leading “spoilers.”