I was read to almost every night as a child, the time carved out of festive grown-up cocktail hours or peaceful twilights before bed. I am older than most debut novelists, and back when my mother and grandmother were reading to my siblings and me, the American cult of the child had yet to flower. There were no toys designed by psychologists, and no television graced my household until long after I was able to read to myself. A hush would come over the room as a book was chosen, and we children would put aside our petty rivalries and sit, freshly washed and reverent, with the quietest one allowed to turn the page. The particular book didn’t matter, I loved them all.
I didn’t always want to be a writer, and I was in my mid-thirties when I stopped reading innocently, as John Barthes would have it—when I started trying to figure out how the masters spun their cotton into gold. In the next years I discovered Hunger by Knut Hamsun, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, Life is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera, and many, many others. These books became my teachers. I still pile them on my desk where I can open them for random inspiration. And my first act of ownership in a new house is to build shelves for them, because for some reason nobody has bookshelves any more—or nobody has enough.
Two recent loves are Remainder by Tom McCarthy, a book that took ten years to find a publisher and that I love as much for what it leaves out (exposition and explanation) as for what it contains, and The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton, a strange and compelling novel of performers and voyeurs. I can’t describe what I look for in a book because the thing that gets me is always something I didn’t expect to find.
Charlotte’s debut novel, THE LIFEBOAT, is this month’s featured book club selection.
It is the summer of 1914 and Europe is on the brink of war, but Grace Winter’s future finally seems secure as she and her new husband set sail for New York, where she hopes to win over a disapproving and status-conscious mother-in-law. When a mysterious explosion sinks their ship, Grace is thrust into a lifeboat by a quick-witted crew member, who climbs in after her even though the boat is already filled beyond capacity.
As the weather deteriorates and the passengers are forced to choose sides in a brewing power struggle, Grace realizes that her survival could depend on whether she backs the ruthless but experienced John Hardie or the enigmatic but increasingly forceful Ursula Grant. Over the course of three perilous weeks, the lifeboat passengers plot, scheme, gossip and console one another while questioning their deepest assumptions about goodness, humanity and God.
Grace is finally rescued, only to be put on trial for her life. Unsure what to make of their client, Grace’s attorneys suggest she write her story down. The result is a page-turning tale of moral dilemmas, and also a haunting portrait of a woman as unforgettable and complicated as the events she describes.