The Lifeboat

By Charlotte Rogan

(Little, Brown and Co., $24.99, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Charlotte Rogan, a Princeton University graduate in architecture who lives in Westport and is the mother of triplets, grew up in a family that loved sailing. She’s lived for a time in South Africa and in Texas, and “The Lifeboat” is her debut novel.

What is this book about?

Set in 1914, and published this year, which is the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s demise, “The Lifeboat” imagines what it would be like to be adrift for three weeks in the Atlantic in an over-full, under-stocked boat following the terrifying sinking of an ocean liner. Grace Winter, just 22, has recently lost her father to suicide (and his fortune as well), has married a wealthy man on their trip to London and become a sudden widow when her husband Henry goes down with the ship, but not before finagling for her a place on a lifeboat. A crew member takes over, but is not universally admired, to say the least. Madness, deaths and drowning (some voluntary) ensue, and after the rescue, Grace and two other women are put on trial for what they did on the ill-fated lifeboat.

Why you’ll like it:

The details of the weeks on the lifeboat are vivid and compelling: you feel the thirst and hunger and become embroiled in the personal animosities of the band of would-be survivors. But the novel is as much about the complexities of right and wrong as it is about the desperate circumstances. Better still, Grace is an unreliable narrator – as readers we are never sure if she is telling the absolute factual truth, or even knows what that is. This leaves us with a lot of deciding to do about what actually happened, a task that involves us deeply in the book.

In an interview with Barnes & Noble, Rogan had this to say:

“In the past few weeks, readers and journalists have asked me what I would do if I were to find myself in Grace’s shoes. Would I kill another person in order to save my own life? My first answer is that I would find it very hard to hurt someone who had not first hurt me. Then the person ups the ante by asking me what I would do if my children were in the lifeboat with me. The bottom line is that I don’t know. The wonderful thing about fiction is that it allows us to enter a dilemma we will never face in life. It is also the perfect vehicle for asking philosophical questions, which are basically questions for which there are no answers. If I want answers, I read non-fiction. If I want to confront the edges of the known universe, fiction is my medium of choice.”

What others are saying:

“Safe at home in the U.S., Grace and two other survivors are put on trial for their actions aboard the under-built, overloaded lifeboat. At sea, as food and water ran out, and passengers realized that some among them would die, questions of sacrifice and duty arose. Rogan interweaves the trial with a harrowing day-by-day story of Grace’s time aboard the lifeboat, and circles around society’s ideas about what it means to be human, what responsibilities we have to each other, and whether we can be blamed for choices made in order to survive. Grace is a complex and calculating heroine, a middle-class girl who won her wealthy husband through smalltime subterfuge. Her actions on the boat are far from faultless, and her memory of them spotty. By refusing to judge her, Rogan leaves room for readers to decide for themselves. A complex and engrossing psychological drama,” says Publishers Weekly.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “First-time novelist Rogan’s architectural background shows in the precision with which she structures the edifice of moral ambiguity surrounding a young woman’s survival during three weeks in a crowded lifeboat adrift in the Atlantic in 1914. The novel begins with Grace back on American soil, on trial for her actions on the boat. Two other female survivors who are also charged, Hannah and Mrs. Grant, plead self-defense. Grace, guided by her lawyer Mr. Reichmann, who has had her write down her day-by-day account of events, pleads not guilty….[Was] she acting out of frail weakness, numbed by her ordeal, or are her survival instincts more coldblooded? Even she may not be sure; much of her conversation circles morality and religion. The lifeboat becomes a compelling, if almost overly crafted, microcosm of a dangerous larger world in which only the strong survive.”

“…impressive, harrowing…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. Like her literary forebear Becky Sharp, Grace wants a great deal from this life and feels justified in using whatever wiles might be necessary to secure her own happy ending,” says The New York Times Book Review.

When is it available?

You can climb into “The Lifeboat” in the new book stacks at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or the Mark Twain branch.

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