THE LIFEBOAT by Charlotte Rogan


Have you ever forced yourself through a book that you didn’t enjoy, but you still wanted to finish? Maybe you were curious about the ending, or maybe you thought it was Good For You, or the reviews were really promising and you thought you might be missing something? That’s how I felt about The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan.

The Lifeboat takes place in the 20s, about two years after the sinking of the Titanic. Grace Winter and her husband Henry elope to London, after he decides to marry her instead of his wealthy fiancee. Grace, a young woman from a disgraced family, knows that Henry’s family will not approve of her, and she urges him to tell them about their marriage while they are en route back to Boston on an ocean liner. Soon after, the ship sinks, and Grace finds herself crammed into an over-capacity lifeboat, while Henry remains on the ship to meet an uncertain fate.

The Lifeboat is about the period of time when Grace was at sea, and then a subsequent trial (after she was rescued) for crimes allegedly committed onboard the lifeboat. There were power struggles among the 38 people on the boat, who faced difficult ethical questions about the price of survival and when it is acceptable to sacrifice lives for the sake of others. The situation brought out the worst, basest impulses of the people on the boat, as they tried to align themselves with the people they thought held the power, only to shift cruelly when the tides changed.

So… I didn’t love The Lifeboat. It was *very* stressful to read. I kept putting myself in the shoes of the people on the boat, which made me very anxious and depressed. The writing is good, and the book is intriguing and engrossing. But I just didn’t like the process of reading it. I also found it difficult to really understand Grace. Her relationship with Henry remained shadowy to the end, and I didn’t get a good enough sense of what she really felt about him or why Grace was worth the sacrifices Henry made for her. I also had trouble keeping the minor characters separate in my mind. I wanted to care more about them, and feel something when they lived or died, but instead I mostly felt detached and disconnected from them.

The Lifeboat had an intriguing premise, but I think it was ultimately not successful, and it was stressful to read.

5 Comments

  • December 1, 2013 - 8:49 am | Permalink

    This is so interesting because I read this, and loved it, but it’s one that I didn’t write about. So now of course I’m trying to pinpoint what I liked so much. Rogan’s writing, I really enjoyed. I don’t remember the boy on the lifeboat. I don’t remember feeling like I had a handle on Grace and her husband, but I do remember being taken with the women’s issues and class issues that I thought she did a good job of highlighting (all those twists and turns from one side to the other, that you mention). I’m looking forward to her next book in light of our differing thoughts on this one.

  • December 3, 2013 - 3:45 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t feel anything for anyone. I really didn’t. I think that’s why the tragedy of the situation never fully hit me.

    And of course I forgot all about the boy. I obviously didn’t care about him either!

  • December 4, 2013 - 8:53 am | Permalink

    I remember slogging through this one too! I suppose we can’t adore every book.

  • December 4, 2013 - 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Before I read this book, I read a review of it that referred to Grace as an “unreliable narrator.” This clued me in to the fact that she might not be telling us the truth, though I don’t necessarily think I would have picked up on that possibility had I not seen it in the review. As I read, it was never clear to me just what the nature of her fabrications might be — presumably involving some of what took place in the lifeboat and also her relationship with Henry — but I think that might explain why some of the nuances were difficult to grasp, especially regarding her recent past and marriage. I also thought there was an implication that some of her later connections with Henry’s family (after the rescue) might be a bit delusional on her part. But my biggest problem with it was that I kept waiting for the big Reveal, a la “Life of Pi,” in which we found out that the whole thing was actually an allegory. Curiously, there was one point where the narrator compared some of the people on the lifeboat to other people in her life, hinting in that direction, but for the most part, there was little implication that the story was more than what it seemed. I’m afraid that post-Pi, every lifeboat story might leave me waiting for the great Reveal.

    • gayle
      December 4, 2013 - 10:34 pm | Permalink

      I read that too, that Grace was an unreliable narrator, and I just didn’t see it. She wasn’t particularly thorough in her description of her marriage to Henry, which seemed shadowy and insubstantial (did she actually love him?) but unreliable wasn’t the word to describe her. She was actually pretty forthcoming about what happened on the boat. I didn’t read Life of Pi so I can’t compare, but I think I am done with lifeboat novels for a while!

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