Poorly Written,

16 reviews

The Lifeboat: A Novel
by Charlotte Rogan

Published: 2013-01-08
Paperback : 278 pages
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64 clubs reading this now
32 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 10 of 16 members
The sinking of an ocean liner leaves a newly married woman battling for survival in this powerful debut novel.
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 ...
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The sinking of an ocean liner leaves a newly married woman battling for survival in this powerful debut novel.

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.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


We passed jagged splinters of wood and half-submerged barrels and snakelike lengths of twisted rope. I recognized a deck chair and a straw hat and what looked like a child’s doll floating together, bleak reminders of the pretty weather we had experienced... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

In disaster situations, is it right to save women and children first? What moral justifications exist for your answer?
Discuss the thought experiment referred to in Grace’s trial, also known as “The Plank of Carneades.” Is either the first or second swimmer to reach the plank justified in pushing the other swimmer away?
What do you think of the concept of necessity as a justification for behavior that would not be condoned in ordinary circumstances?
If you were to ask Grace what qualities she looks for in a friend, what would she say? What would the truth be?
Which characters, in your opinion, hold the moral high ground?
Seventeenth-century political philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke postulated that humankind started off in a state of nature and gradually gave up certain freedoms in return for security, an exchange sometimes called the social contract. How does the lifeboat approximate a state of nature? Does survival in such a state require giving up personal freedom and autonomy?
Some modern writers assert that the advances in opportunities for women have been predicated on the requirement that women become more like men. Do you agree with this?
Are people more likely to revert to traditional male/female roles in crisis situations? What traditional male/female traits might help a person survive?
Author Warren Farrell, who writes about gender issues, has said: “Men’s weakness is their façade of strength; women’s strength is their façade of weakness.” Does this hold true for the characters in The Lifeboat?
In his book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, Nathaniel Philbrick argues that an “authoritarian” leadership style is useful in the early stages of a disaster, but a “social” style becomes more important over time. Does this dynamic fully explain the power struggle in Lifeboat 14 or were other forces at work?
Does power always involve the threat of coercion? Besides violence, what forms of power influence the characters in The Lifeboat?
The first thing a person says is often more honest than later explanations. Are there instances in the book where a character’s early words are a clue to assessing the truth of a particular situation or incident?
Do you think Mr. Hardie stole or helped to steal anything from the sinking Empress Alexandra? Would this have been wrong, given that any valuables were destined to be lost forever?
Should Grace have been acquitted of Mr. Hardie’s murder?
Comment on the use of storytelling in the novel. Does your answer shed any light on Grace’s own story?

From the author's web site

Suggested by Members

Would you side with Hardie or Mrs. Grant?
How much is Grace playing both sides herself, even though she doesn't see herself that way?
Keep in mind the Titanic in their lifeboats and compare to this story for realism.
by mrblock (see profile) 02/16/16

no--there are already plenty of good questions.
by aBookie (see profile) 04/10/13

What assets do you possess that would be helpful for your survival and the survival of others on a life boat?
by critzyj (see profile) 07/11/12

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub


“The Lifeboat traps the reader in a story that is exciting at the literal level and brutally moving at the existential. I read it in one go.”

--Emma Donoghue, author of New York Times bestseller Room

“Charlotte Rogan uses a deceptively simple narrative of shipwreck and survival to explore our all-too-human capacity for self-deception.”

--JM Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and author of Waiting for the Barbarians

“What a splendid book. It rivets the reader’s attention, and at the same time it seethes with layered ambiguity.”

--Hilary Mantel, Booker Prize-winning author of Wolf Hall

A Conversation with Charlotte Rogan

This April marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Did the story of the Titanic inspire you to write the book?

The tragedy of the Titanic was that there were not enough lifeboats for everyone, but if you made it into a boat, you were rescued 4-6 hours later. The characters in The Lifeboat were not so lucky. While my essentially story takes up where the Titanic left off, the Titanic was not a major source of inspiration for me.

The thing that caused me to put pen to paper was finding my husband's old criminal law text on the top shelf in my library. I was particularly intrigued by two 19th century cases where shipwrecked sailors were put on trial after being rescued. I was fascinated by the idea that the law of society was being applied to people who found themselves in a situation where everyone could not escape with their lives. Is the only moral course of action for such people to quietly die?

The Titanic was a wonderful resource when it came to researching background details, including lifeboat sizes, launching mechanisms, communication capabilities, shipping routes, etc. But I protected myself from reading about the survivors. I was worried that their stories would contaminate my imagination as I created my own cast of characters.

The people in the lifeboat become concerned with issues of class and gender. Did you set out to write a book about class and gender issues?

I was a member of one of the first Princeton University classes to admit women, and it wasn't unusual for a professor to call on me to give "the women's point of view." I had gone mostly to girls' schools, and this was my first realization that opinions might be gender-based. So my educational experiences, and growing up during the sexual revolution, have given me a life-long interest in gender issues. Since I bring the person I am to my writing, that interest is bound to come out in my work.

As for the question about class, that feeds into my view that a lifeboat is an apt metaphor for many of the problems faced by humanity. The rules of any society invariably favor some people over others, and I have often wondered why people who are not advantaged by those rules nevertheless feel bound by them.

I think many writers sense they are following their story rather than creating it, and it is only in later drafts that intention really kicks in. When you put a diverse group of characters together in any situation, a kind of identity politics is bound to emerge. Once I saw a power struggle developing along gender and class lines, I worked to make it more dramatic and believable.

What would you do to save yourself?

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.

At the end of the book, it isn't completely clear what Grace has or hasn't done. How did you decide what to reveal and what to leave ambiguous?

What to reveal and what to leave unresolved is a tricky call for a writer. You can frustrate a reader by leaving too much up in the air. But equally frustrating, at least for me as a reader, are books that spend the last chapters or pages tying up everything into a neat package. That approach can serve to undo all of the careful work of engaging the reader in the story that has gone before.

Personally, I am biased against stories that spend too much time in explanation or exposition. I like writers who throw their readers in mid-stream and trust that we can swim. An example of what I mean is Grace's physical appearance. Most readers will come away from the book thinking that she is beautiful, but I say almost nothing about her looks. They get this impression only from the effect Grace has on other people. That, to me, is one way of enlisting the reader's imagination in the creation of the characters.

Another way is by not judging my characters. Even I do not know everything about Grace, and I think that is what keeps me, as the writer, from passing judgment on her. This is what allows each reader to form his or her own interpretation, not only of Grace's actions, but of the book as a whole.

And bear in mind that this is a first person narrative. Since Grace doesn't know everything about what happened to the other characters, it is impossible for her to pass that information on to the reader. Furthermore, she is not completely reliable as a narrator—or completely self-aware—so having her suddenly reveal all at the end of the book would be breaking the conceit of the novel, which is claustrophobic not only because it is set within the confines of a lifeboat, but because it is set within the confines of Grace's mind.

Who have you discovered lately?

I have read a lot of wonderful books lately, but I am going to confine my answer to recent reads that made my "Life List," which also might be titled "Books That Knocked My Socks Off." Recent additions to the Life List include:

The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton: Brilliant novel about performers and voyeurs; astonishing language and plot.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead: Literary zombie novel; superhuman powers of observation; no plot. [Whitehead's debut, The Intuitionist, was a Discover selection in 1999. -Ed.]

Remainder by Tom McCarthy: A great example of a book that creates a bizarre universe and trusts the reader not to need hand-holding.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce: Gorgeous at the sentence level, but also has the reader cheering the characters on from the sidelines.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond: Riveting explanation of the unequal rates of social development on the various continents.

--From B&N.com

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by Sam S. (see profile) 05/10/21

by Lolo S. (see profile) 07/26/19

by Joseph W. (see profile) 03/21/18

  "The Lifeboat"by Kathryn S. (see profile) 07/04/16

This is a real page turner. It keeps you guessing right up to the end. It also explores philosophies on religion, God, meaning of life, survival, without being didactic. Some of the themes a... (read more)

  "The Lifeboat"by Richard B. (see profile) 02/16/16

A pretty good story for the author's first attempt. Written from the viewpoint of one of the Lifeboat's survivor, Grace Winter. If one put yourself in that Lifeboat you can well imagine all of the events... (read more)

  "Lifeboat the nover"by suzanne m. (see profile) 09/25/14

Not an enjoyable book.

by Danushi D. (see profile) 05/11/14

  "Disturbing and Too Much Left Unexplained"by Angelic S. (see profile) 10/16/13

There were so many points in this book that were unclear. Many were confused about whether the cargo had any significance to the crash and escape. There were those of us that thought the main character... (read more)

  "Great idea for a book, but poorly executed."by Patrice C. (see profile) 06/11/13

I recommended this book to my book club, based upon the premise of the story. Clearly, this was a case of "don't judge a book by it's cover." I thought the idea of the book, survivors in a... (read more)

  "The Lifeboat: A Novel"by Anne M. (see profile) 05/23/13

A great book for discussion: is it men against the women? Who is really in charge? Is she a social climber?

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