"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." - John Keats

"You're not allowed to say anything about books because they're books and books are, you know, God." - Nick Hornby

Monday, July 25, 2016

Review #30: The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan

Both JB and Boss read The Lifeboat and I think that they both liked it more than I did, although I just asked Boss and he said after having been away from it for awhile, he felt it was fine but kind of flat. JB said it was a fascinating look at human behavior, and I suppose he's right, but it just didn't set me on fire the way I think it did him. I think that this is one of those books that you have to be in the right mood to get everything you can out of it, and I suppose I just wasn't in the right mood. Plus, I really hated the main character, which Boss says is a dumb rule, that I have to like the characters, but I can't stand unlikable narrators, and I find that it colors the whole book for me.

It's the summer of 1914. It's been two years since the sinking of the Titanic, and in that time, Archduke Ferdinand has been assassinated, World War I has broken out in Europe, and the Germans have sunk the passenger ship Lusitania. Twenty-two year old Grace and her newly minted husband Henry board the Empress Alexandra for passage across the Atlantic, Henry glad-handing and laying the foundation for some business deals, with Grace reflecting on how lucky she is to have landed such a wealthy husband. When an explosion rocks the ship, Henry presses Grace in to a lifeboat, telling her he'll catch the next one, and before she knows it, she's being lowered in to the cold Atlantic with 38 other people. It quickly becomes evident that the lifeboat is not designed to hold 39 passengers and over the next three weeks, the lifeboat will lose its share of passengers in a variety of ways before they are rescued, and it's these losses that land Grace - and others - on trial for murder. 

Grace is an unreliable - and extraordinarily unlikable - narrator. Everything is told in her voice, through her lenses, and so the reader never feels as though they are getting the real story, only what Grace has concocted (or her lawyer has told her to say), and it goes without saying that she's painting herself in the best light possible. Perhaps that's what was Rogan was going for, but it was a style that left me feeling uneasy. And as Grace told her story so dispassionately, I found myself caring less and less about who survived and under what circumstances the passengers were rescued. (And frankly, a little disappointed that Grace survived when so many others didn't.)

But despite my intense dislike for Grace, I found the overall theme of The Lifeboat fascinating, even if I didn't necessarily find the actual book all that fantastic. The real story isn't about whether Grace is telling the truth, or whether Mr. Hardy really was hiding something, or whether Mrs. Grant really is guilty of murder. No, the real story is about what happens when we strip away the bonds of human decency and have to fight for our individual survival, even if it means bringing harm to others. We all like to pretend that we'd be the bigger person, the one to jump overboard when the boat becomes too full, the one to give up our ration of food or fish or water to the weaker in the group. But would we really? In the end, aren't we all survivors - animals, really - and wouldn't we, absent any law and order or societal norms, return to that animal-like state and do anything necessary to ensure our own existence?

The Lifeboat was fine. It has the potential to make a great movie (Anne Hathaway is rumored to be playing Grace, although there is no shooting schedule yet), but as a novel, it wasn't as good as I wanted it to be.

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