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The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan
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The Lifeboat (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Charlotte Rogan

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8658210,312 (3.48)77
Member:jfaltz
Title:The Lifeboat
Authors:Charlotte Rogan
Info:Little, Brown Young Readers (2012), Paperback, 288 pages
Collections:Read but unowned
Rating:****
Tags:read 2012

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The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (2012)

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When we are babies … we need an authoritative figure to guide and take care of us. We ask no questions about that authority and imagine that the small circumference of our family life is the limit of the universe and that what we see before us is what exists everywhere and also that it is all as it should be. As we mature, our horizon expands and we begin to question. This continues until we either throw over our creators – our parents – for good and take their place as the creative force in our own lives or find replacements for them because the terror and responsibility are too great. People go one way or the other, and this accounts for all of the great personal and political divides throughout history.

Sometimes a book falls into your lap at the right moment. I believe firmly in the magic of books, and the transformative power of good writing, which is why I read as much as I do, and write about what I read. But I also believe the line between a good book and an amazing book can be defined by what is going on in your own life at the time you are reading said book.

I am writing this review in the midst of an ocean-going adventure – I’m on a cruise around Cape Horn – and I could think of no place more appropriate to read a book about a shipwreck and the subsequent horrors for survivors in a lifeboat than now. Much better than the non-fiction anthology, Disasters at Sea, which I read when I was on a cruise in 2007.

But anyway, I know that part of why The Lifeboat resonated with me in the way it did is because I am on this cruise, because I have been pushing myself outside my comfort zone on this cruise, and, yes, going on adventures on this cruise. The main character in Rogan’s superb work, Grace Winter, is also on an adventure … of a different sort, mind you, but an adventure still. Reading the tribulations of Grace, as she tries to survive 21 days in a lifeboat after her ship catches fire and sinks, is obviously not akin to my own experiences, but since the book is more about the psychological power of survival versus the physical, then in that way it is.

Grace is newly married, and she and her husband are traveling aboard the Empress Alexandra when a fire breaks out and the passengers are forced to take to the lifeboats. Grace finds herself in a boat with 38 other survivors, including one of the ship’s crew members, and thus the adventure truly starts. The 39 survivors try to stay alive, and cope with their situation in fascinating and complex psychological ways. There is the harried crew member, who takes a tyrannical and dictatorial stance since he has the oceangoing experience and he knows what he is doing, and there is the small contingent of anti-crew-member survivors, led by one of the ship’s 1st class female passengers, who plot and scheme to remove the crew member from his position of power. Grace finds herself caught in the middle: she is grateful to the crew member for saving her life, but as her own psyche weakens in the struggle to survive, she starts to question what is right and wrong. She starts to question the existence of God. And she starts to question her role in the developing hierarchy of the lifeboat.

It is a fascinating psychological read, to say the least. First, there is the question of how Grace came to be in the lifeboat in the first place. In the trauma of the fire, she doesn’t remember herself, but one of her fellow survivors, with whom she bonds in a rather unconventional way, claims through most of the book that Grace’s late husband “bought her place in the lifeboat” with family jewels. Then there is the question of Grace’s relationship with her fellow survivors. As she herself admits, she is captivated in a way with the crew member because she attributes her survival to his skill as a leader. But she is also intrigued by the anti-crew-member faction, and comes to believe as they do: that the officer is the reason they have not been rescued … that he is hoarding food and water … and if they are to survive, then he must go.

And then there is the character of Grace herself. A survivor, no doubt, who married her husband because he saved her from an ultimate fate of life as a governess … but whom she loves nonetheless. And she is one who can face the harsh realities of the situation in front of her. As the book develops, the question of who survives and who dies comes up again and again, and Grace faces the reality with a deliberate and methodical certainty: for some to live, some must die. She accepts it and understands it.

But ultimately, the part that remains with me even to this moment is that Grace viewed her 21 days in the lifeboat as an adventure, and after she is rescued (which believe me, is not a spoiler alert since the book opens with Grace walking to an unidentified courthouse with her lawyers for her trial. The charge shall remain unnamed since that is a spoiler alert, but trust me – you know from page 1 that Grace is rescued), her life can start fresh. It can start anew. Will she have that chance is also a spoiler alert, which I will not reveal, but I personally responded to this idea: life is a series of adventures – when one adventures ends, a new one can begin.

Thank you, Charlotte Rogan, for crafting your novel around that idea.

Since I have been thinking a lot about my own personal adventures as of late, I am probably slightly biased in writing this review, but I do believe that Rogan crafted a superb novel. I love how the work was formatted – you learn right from the get-go that Grace survived the lifeboat so the question is not if, but how … and Rogan returns enough to the “present day” (i.e., after the rescue) to make you wonder why on earth, after surviving 21 days in a lifeboat, Grace is on trial. Beautifully, beautifully crafted. What could easily become disjointed plot points flow together like water, and that takes a very skilled writer indeed, regardless of the perception of the reader.

But I thank you again, Charlotte Rogan. Your book has led me on a quest. A quest to find the adventure in everything I do. Thank you. Thank you for opening that world to me. ( )
  parhamj | Nov 16, 2014 |
Short review. Was this made into a movie? It's really a wonderful read. It was a movie in my head. ( )
  mreed61 | Aug 23, 2014 |
I might give closer to 5 stars but I disliked how the story was broken up. It was very compelling and I finished it in 2 days, losing sleep to keep reading, which is of course a high compliment. ( )
  lunule | Aug 22, 2014 |
‘[...] the mind can work to suppress traumatic experiences, and I suppose that is true, but sometimes I think the failure to remember is not so much a pathological tendency as a natural consequence of necessity [...]‘

Grace Winter and her new husband Henry are traveling across the Atlantic to New York on the Empress Alexandra when a mysterious explosion sinks the ship. Grace manages to obtain a spot on a lifeboat but her husband was not and she presumes he is dead. The story begins though, with Grace no longer in the lifeboat, saved after 21 days at sea, but currently on trial for murder.

Being stranded in the middle of the Atlantic is a horrifying enough though but The Lifeboat’s extreme focus on the suffering and the change in mentality that the individuals undergo truly make you wonder if earning a spot on that lifeboat was actually a blessing. We learn the details of what occurred on the lifeboat from Grace directly, as she’s been instructed to do by her lawyer in an attempt to find someway of exonerating her. Grace is a deceptively simple woman that is actually far more manipulative than I think anyone gave her credit for. Her sense of self preservation is strong and when rehashing the sequence of events which took place on the lifeboat, she always finds a way to reinterpret her actions so as to always come out ‘right’. As you learn more of her story, you’ll begin to start questioning her actions and realize how unreliable a narrator she has been the entire time.

“…was bluish-black and rolled past us like an unending herd of whales. The lifeboat alternately rose high on their broad backs and slid down into the deep depressions between them. Above, clouds hurtled through the sky before the wind…. I shivered, and for the first time since the day of the shipwreck, I felt profoundly afraid. We were doomed.”

The traumatic situation these individuals found themselves in was only made worse as time progressed and the rapid reduction of food and water quantities only succeeded in speeding up the hysteria. Fear begins warping mentalities and speculations arise creating more danger inside the boat than the sea itself. This story of survival is fascinating and appalling, but put in a similar situation who knows what lengths you would go to in order to ensure your own survival? ( )
  bonniemarjorie | Aug 21, 2014 |
In general, I was not that moved by this novel. It may be that I have read true stories about people stranded for days, weeks, and more in lifeboats, or on anything that floats. Knowing that a story actually happened can make a disaster grip me much more than a piece of fiction that doesn’t involve me. Also, the fact that this story is from the position of a person of privilege — and I have a serious distaste for the rich and the large role they play in our fictional entertainment — is a major drawback to my attachment to the story. ( )
  jphamilton | Jul 21, 2014 |
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Rogan writes viscerally about the desperate condition of the castaway, of what it is like to be “surrounded on four sides by walls of black water” or to be so thirsty your tongue swells to the size of “a dried and hairless mouse.” But it’s her portrait of Grace, who is by turns astute, conniving, comic and affecting, that drives the book.
added by ozzer | editNew York Times, SARAH TOWERS (May 4, 2012)
 
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Epigraph
I shall sing of the flood to all people. Listen!

—The myth of Atrahasis, last lines
Dedication
For Kevin
And for Olivia, Stephanie, and Nick
With love
First words
Today I shocked the lawyers, and it surprised me, the effect I could have on them.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
Grace Winter, twenty-two, is both a newlywed and a widow.
She is also on trial for her life.


In the summer of 1914, Grace elopes with Henry Winter in London, hoping to escape the disapproval of his wealthy family. When the elegant ocean liner carrying them home to America suffers a mysterious explosion, Henry sacrifices his own safety and secures Grace a seat in a lifeboat, which its occupants quickly realize is over capacity. For any to live, some must die.

Adrift on the Atlantic, the weather deteriorating and supplies dwindling, the castaways scheme and battle, caught up in a vicious power struggle between a ruthless but experienced sailor and an enigmatic matron with surprising powers of persuasion. Choosing a side will seal her fate, but Grace has made her way in the world by seizing every possible advantage. As she recollects the unorthodox way she and Henry met and considers the new life of privilege she thought she'd found, Grace must now decide — will she pay any price to keep it?

The Lifeboat is a masterful debut, a story of hard choices, ambition, and endurance, narrated by a woman as complex and unforgettable as the events she describes.

Haiku summary

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0316185906, Hardcover)

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?

The Lifeboat is a page-turning novel of hard choices and survival, narrated by a woman as unforgettable and complex as the events she describes.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:22:18 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Forced into an overcrowded lifeboat after a mysterious explosion on their trans-Atlantic ocean liner, newly widowed Grace Winter battles the elements and her fellow survivors and remembers her husband, Henry, who set his own safety aside to ensure Grace's.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

» see all 8 descriptions

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