Friday Reads: The Lifeboat

“Friday Reads” is a weekly (almost) blog written by reference librarian Faith Lee about great books, magazines, and the occasional reference work. Topics may be new titles added to the library, selections from the Staff Picks shelf or about something she recently read. Admittedly, there is a definite slant toward nonfiction, because, well, she’s a reference librarian and likes to learn new things. Guest bloggers take a turn sometimes too. No matter the source, good reads are featured here. This week’s blog was written by Jill Erickson, head of reference and adult services and one of two librarians who run the library’s fiction book club.

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Last week the library fiction book group, also known as “Books on the Half Shell,” met to discuss our most recent selection in our six-month series of books having to do with the ocean. We have already read The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje and Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticant in this series, and the June book was The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan.

The novel focuses on a young newlywed, Grace Winter, during the summer of 1914, just two years after the Titanic sank. Grace is on an ocean liner with her new husband, Henry, crossing the Atlantic when the ship has a mysterious explosion. Henry is lost and Grace ends up in an overcrowded lifeboat. The story revolves around the lifeboat, and also the trial that occurs as a result of Grace’s time on the lifeboat.

In no time at all, we were all discussing the fact that Grace is one of the most unreliable narrators ever! The New York Public Library Literature Companion describes an unreliable narrator in this way:

“A narrator whose judgment is suspect.  Narrators may be untrustworthy for a number of reasons; they may be dishonest, self-serving, or self-deceiving, deranged or of questionable sanity, or naïve and unaware of the full significance of the events they relate. Such narration forces readers to bring their own critical capacities to bear on the account in question.”

Much of our discussion was about our narrator, and if we could believe ANYTHING she wrote. Her story is told primarily through the record she has been asked to write by her lawyer of everything that happened on the lifeboat and the events that led up to the lifeboat. As Richard Eder wrote in his Boston Globe review of the novel:

“In her account of the lifeboat and subsequent talks with her lawyer and a psychiatrist, Grace is not specifically unveiled as a self-server with secrets. Rogan has done something more complex. The veil remains; only hints come through; enough to leave the reader – intrigued, yes, and also frustrated – in doubt somewhere short of certainty. And indeed the writer has performed a fictional equivalent to a phenomenon in sub-atomic physics: that observing a phenomenon can make it slip away and alter.”

This book also introduced us via the author’s epigraph to the myth of Atrahasis. The epigraph reads: “I shall sing of the flood to all people. Listen!” Upon a bit of sleuthing, The Oxford Companion to World Mythology by David Leming informed us that Atrahasis was: “An Akkadian-Babylonian version of the ancient Mesopotamian flood myth, which influenced the Noah story of the Torah, features the flood hero Atrahasis.  One of the great things about our book group is that every month we learn something new, as well as have a great discussion.

The book group reviews were definitely mixed on this particular novel, with probably half the group really loving the book and half the group barely able to finish it.  Of course, that is the mixture for a great discussion!

Next month reference librarian Donna Burgess will lead a discussion of Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet.  New members are always welcome.  Pick up a copy of the book at the reference desk and join us on either Wednesday, August 15 at 7:00 PM or Thursday, the 16th at 10:00 AM in the Hermann Foundation Meeting Room for a rousing hour talking about mermaids in a Caribbean island resort.  Sounds like fun.

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