Review: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

The Lifeboat by Charlotte RoganCharlotte Rogan’s much-hyped debut, The Lifeboat, is one of my biggest reading disappointments of the year. 

And I feel like a complete jackass for saying that. Rogan has a wonderful story of writing for years and years before The Lifeboat was published and in a publishing climate where precocious twenty-somethings are getting all sorts of attention, it’s wonderful to see someone’s dream of being a published novelist become a reality after years of work on her craft.

However, with its singular focus on Big Questions About Morality, I was left wanting more of everything: plot, character development, tension. 

Grace is a newlywed when, in 1914, the ship she’s traveling on from England to the U.S. with her new husband suffers from an unexplained explosion, sinking the ship. Grace ends up on a lifeboat (there weren’t enough to go around—think The Titanic), perhaps thanks to some wheeling and dealing on the part of her husband, Henry. As the 39 survivors on the over-capacity lifeboat are adrift at sea as the events on the lifeboat unfolds while simultaneously the story flashes back to Grace and Henry’s courtship and sudden marriage.

Herein lies my problem with The Lifeboat: It’s trying to do a lot—too much for a 278 page novel.

We’ve got the mystery of the ship’s explosion. And the exploration of human nature. And the back-story with Grace and Henry and how they came to meet and marry. And Henry’s family. And the creepiness around the seaman, Hardie (the most interesting character by far), who takes command of Lifeboat 14.

Yet, with all that promise, we’re bogged down in details of the toilet habits of the passengers and Grace’s rumination on humanity instead of an exploration of the sheer terror of floating in the ocean, alone at sea, uncertain if rescue will ever arrive. Even the horrifying moments (and there are some truly disturbing moments throughout) felt flat through Grace’s eyes as she ruminates about how this makes Grace feel, how this changes Grace’s view on humanity and what this makes Grace think about (seriously, I would not have been surprised if Grace had started speaking of herself in the third person, ala Lebron James).

I had been allowed to believe in man’s innate goodness for the twenty-two years of my life, and I had hoped to carry the belief with me to my grave. I wanted to think that all people could have what they wanted, that there was no inherent conflict between competing interests, and that, if tragedies had to happen, they were not something mere human beings could control.

I suspect [BIG FAT SPOILER ALERT… MAYBE] that Rogan may written the story this way because she intended for readers to believe Grace is a sociopath, selfish and opportunistic and wholly unaffected by normal human emotion, but she just read as flat. If this had been effective in its execution, my opinion on the novel would likely be quite different.

As I headed toward the end of The Lifeboat, I found myself just wanting Grace to fall overboard, because she’s just so vapid.

Sadly, since the story’s framed in the context of Grace telling her story as she’s on trial for murder, I knew from the beginning that she survives her ordeal at sea. Without that keeping me going, this was very nearly a did-not-finish for me. The only thing that kept me reading was that I’m a sucker for a mystery and I was extremely curious about the circumstances under which Grace wound up on the lifeboat and a number of the other twists in the story.

Except… by the final pages, there are still many, many ends left untied.

This isn’t a case of leaving it up to the reader to decide for themselves what happens, but there are key plot points from the beginning (particularly regarding Grace’s husband’s family) that are completely dropped, leaving the story confused and unfinished. There’s a part of me that wonders if perhaps the publication of The Lifeboat was rushed to coincide with the re-release of Titanic this spring*, because there are some points at which the novel could have really benefited from some content editing to wrap up those important questions.

I’m guessing that The Lifeboat will be extremely popular with book clubs (not mine—we avoid Serious Literature) and I think there are people we will adore this novel.

If you enjoy books about morality and ethics, that ask big questions (as book clubs often enjoy, as these types of books generate good discussion), The Lifeboat may be more appealing for you. Rogan is a very good writer (even if her writing style isn’t my favorite—it’s more what you usually read in books classified as “women’s fiction,” a term that bothers me on a number of levels), and I particularly enjoyed her depiction of the details of sailing and the maritime details.

I prefer my survival stories to include at least one character whose survival I actually find myself rooting for and a decent dose of drama and tension, since that’s one of the reasons survival stories are some compelling when well executed. Unfortunately, The Lifeboat had next to none of that. Ultimately, the storytelling in this novel just wasn’t there for me. Perhaps it will be for you. 

FNL Character Rating: Mara, that drunk girl from East Dillon who hits on Vince and gets passed around like a ragdoll in an internet video and resists Tami’s wise intervention.

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*It is extremely distressing that movies that were popular when I was in high school are being re-released as “classics.” Screw that.

Note: I finished The Lifeboat several weeks ago, but I’d held off on reviewing it because it was driving me crazy that the story reminded me of something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I was thrilled to finally find this Goodreads review that makes reference to the Alfred Hitchcock film, The Lifeboat (which is quite good, incidentally)—which was exactly what I was thinking of. I don’t think the novel is derivitive of that film, but both tackle similar themes, the film far more successfully.

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