In the opening scene, she is standing with her mouth open in the middle of a downpour. When reprimanded by her lawyers, she admits to being “thirsty for rain and salt water, for the whole boundless ocean of it.” Afterward, she is unable to restrain her laughter and is asked to eat her meal in the cloakroom of a restaurant. While contemplating the pros and cons of an insanity defense, one of the lawyers gives her a diary and asks her to recreate the twenty-one days she spent in a crowded lifeboat during the summer of 1914.
In a dispassionate voice, Grace tells her story.
Happy to be sailing on the Empress Alexandra with her new husband Henry, Grace looked forward to starting their new life together in New York. When the ocean liner suffered a mysterious explosion, Henry secured a place for Grace in a lifeboat, which is over capacity. Throughout the book, different characters comment on Grace’s life of privilege and the unusual circumstances that led to her inclusion on that crowded lifeboat.
Grace, however, had humble beginnings, enduring the trauma of her father’s suicide and her mother’s subsequent breakdown. She lured wealthy banker Henry Winter away from his long-term fiancée, admitting that she felt no guilt in freeing “him from both tradition and from emotional restraint” and, in the process, securing her own future.
As the castaways battle the elements and each other, it becomes evident that some must be sacrificed for the majority to survive. A brewing power struggle between a ruthless, experienced sailor and a persuasive matron further complicates the situation. Throughout the ordeal, Grace remains passive and is easily manipulated by the stronger characters.
Once I started reading, I couldn’t put the novel down. In spite of my ambivalence toward Grace, I was fascinated by the other personalities and how they reacted when pushed beyond their limits of endurance. To be truthful, I did not find any of the characters likeable. I tend to agree with Grace’s description: “We were stripped of all decency. I couldn’t see there was anything good or noble left once food and shelter were taken away.
Rogan found the germ of this story while reading one of her husband’s old legal texts. She was particularly intrigued by the account of two drowning sailors who came upon a plank that could only support one person. After considering the question—Is it murder for one of them to push the other off—Charlotte Rogan started writing The Lifeboat.