Friday, May 4, 2012

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan


I'm currently in the midst of reading two enormously fat books, Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (801 pages, including endnotes and appendices); and A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin (1021 pages, which includes an enormous appendix at the end with character listings).  It's probably a really bad idea to be simultaneously reading two doorstoppers at the same time, but that's what I'm into at the moment.

And so, when this book arrived on the library's hold shelf, how could I resist a quick contemporary read?  Only 275 pages, and the page size is small and the type is not.  Last Friday was a city holiday in San Antonio, so I read half at lunchtime and the rest before bed, a very quick read, and I found it very interesting and thought-provoking -- excellent for a book group.

In the prologue, we learn that Grace Winter is on trial for murder, but at first we don't know who she may have killed, or what happened.   During the trial, her attorneys advise her to write a diary, since they're considering a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.  The book that follows is her diary as she remembers the events.

According to the diary,  in the year 1914, Grace was 22 and had eloped to England with her wealthy husband Henry  After the Great War breaks out, Grace and Henry book passage on a luxury liner called the Empress Alexandria; midway across the Atlantic, an explosion sinks the ship.  Grace is the last passenger to get on her lifeboat, which holds 38 other people.  The diary recalls the events that led up to the shipwreck, and how they manage to survive the terrible time that follows.

I found this book really interesting, and I liked how the author interwove the story of what happened day by day in the lifeboat with the background of the characters.  Of course it's all from Grace's point of view.  What really struck me is how the different personalities began to interact in such a stressful situation; how people react when under such terrible duress.  It reminded me both of the TV show Survivor, and Lord of the Flies.   I'm beginning to suspect this book's publication date was deliberately planned to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking.

And oddly enough, I read four books in a row which involved boats and ships -- after this one, I started a young adult book called Ship Breaker for the teen book group; plus both Our Mutual Friend and A Dance with Dragons have characters who are going on ships.  So I've been inundated lately with sailing vocabulary.  I don't know if I planned it this way subconsciously, or it's some kind of sign that I'm about to go on a boat trip somewhere -- or maybe it's some kind of warning, since an awful lot of situations in these four books don't end well!  I'm pretty much landlocked in south Texas, and I haven't booked any cruises lately.  I'm beginning to think this is a good thing.

16 comments:

  1. I've just finished it, too - but wasn't so keen. I found it a bit laboured.
    And most of the characters on the boat seemed interchangeable - I don't think I'd have cared all that much even if they'd started eating each other!

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  2. Well, I suppose I was gushing a bit. I thought it was a really great premise. And I forgot about the Hitchcock movie Lifeboat! I saw it years ago. Between that and Jaws, I don't think I'll be going on any boat trips in the near future.

    Maybe I need to start reading Moby Dick and continue the sailing theme?

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  3. Moby Dick defeated me, so good luck. Have you ever read The Perfect Storm? Now that was gripping.

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    1. That was a gripping book, so tragic. I also recently read Zeitoun which was about a Hurricane Katrina survivor. Books about natural disasters are so tragic especially reading about them and knowing about what could have been avoided.

      It seems like people either hate Moby Dick, or they love it. I have a lovely Penguin edition that I won last year in a contest, so I'm hoping to read it eventually. I have a lot of big fat books so it will have to wait.

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  4. I've always enjoyed the tourist cruises along the Riverwalk :) This sounds like a very interesting book!

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    1. I've never even been on one of those cruises! I really should try it some day.

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  5. I realized recently that I don't really love books that take place on ships. Well, not super-recently, but recently. The book that made me completely aware of this character trait? Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch.

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    1. I do seem to be attracted to books about sailing, maybe because I've never done it. I went on a cruise years ago and some small boats, but I've never been sailing. My brother was going to sail from California to Hawaii a few years ago, but the mast snapped before they'd even been out for one day. They had exactly enough gas to power home. Good thing they didn't get any farther!

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  6. I'm with Aarti - I'm not usually a fan of books that take place on boats (unless they're by Joseph Conrad). I did NOT enjoy Moby Dick, so good luck with that if you try it. I did like the first 200 pages or so, before they get on the boat. :) However, the premise of this is intriguiing. You made it sound interesting enough for me to put a reserve on it at the library!

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    1. It was interesting and a very fast read. I haven't read Conrad in years, since high school. He's another author that people seem to love or hate. I wasn't excited by Heart of Darkness but I remember liking The Secret Sharer. It was so long ago, I should probably give him another try someday.

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  7. I liked this too, but I think I was expecting more. The end was too bland for me and because we are learning of events from Grace's POV we have limited knowledge of what happens. I really wanted to know what happened on those last few days on the lifeboat in more detail. But this was overall a really compelling read. And, yes - perfect for book clubs!

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    1. You're right, the ending was the least memorable part of the book for me also. I first read about this in the New York Times. The story of how Rogan wrote the book was almost as interesting as the story itself. I suggested it as a library purchase and they ordered it the same day -- I think a whole bunch of people must have emailed them. There are 59 holds on it at the moment but I'll put it on the list as possible book group selections.

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  8. Hey Karen!

    I wanted to let you know you won a book over on my blog (a Penguin clothbound!). I'm having a hard time finding your e-mail to let you know. Send me an email (aliteraryodyssey (at) gmail.com) so I can get your mailing information and choice!

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  9. OMG!!! I"m so excited!! And I was just about to post about my choices for the VIctorian Celebration!

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  10. It's fun to notice accidental trends in reading, yes? Stay away from the water.

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    1. And I definitely won't be reading Jaws anytime soon!

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