Running out of Luck
Six Chinese men survived the sinking of the Titanic. Before reading Luck of the Titanic, I must confess this was actually completely unknown to me. A fact that, I’m sure, many other readers may not be aware of either. If there’s one thing this book does well, it’s bring awareness toward this previously untold side of the “Unsinkable” voyage back in 1912.
Unfortunately the book fails to translate that into the same awe and wonder the motion picture achieved back in 1997. In fact, it’s worth bringing this film up because Luck of the Titanic feels akin to watching the first half of that movie and then rushing through the sinking in about 20 minutes. Out of 350+ pages of this book, the iceberg hits around page 285. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a slow burn, but the final act of this book feels rushed and lacks enough urgency to keep you invested in all the characters.
The story itself follows the exploits of Valora Luck, a Chinese woman who hops aboard the Titanic to find her brother Jamie. Val has big plans to join the circus and she’s hell-bent on convincing her brother to join her for this risky endeavor.
Given the Chinese Exclusion Act in place and how outlandish this plan actually is, Val remains stubbornly determined to uproot her brother, who has made a home and a new life for himself aboard the ship after the death of their Mother.
This set-up has an adverse reaction of making Val pretty unlikable for large parts of the first half of this book. Thankfully toward the middle section she does warm to audiences but you do need to persevere with this one. In fact, persevere may actually be the best word to describe this book.
Despite the short, snappy chapters, Luck of the Titanic sure takes its sweet time to get to any sort of dramatic tension. There’a an entire chapter dedicated to Val juggling on the poop deck. Another sees two whole pages dedicated to Drummer (one of the passengers) starting up a song, with lyrics and a rhythmic beat. Sure, these may be nice inclusions but they add absolutely nothing to this story.
In fact, most of this book’s plot ends up inconsequential by the end. No spoilers here of course, but the drama aboard the Titanic basically dissipates as soon as the iceberg hits. The best example here comes from a subplot involving Val fashioning some beautiful dresses for House Of July that’s just completely abandoned. In fact, there’s absolutely no resolution to this at all. Other times, the book borrows whole plot elements from the 1997 movie.
A third class passenger pretending to be first class? Check. Val making it safely to a lifeboat only to jump off before it hits the water to be with her beloved? Yep, that’s here too. Even the final scenes are nigh-on identical to the Jack and Rose floating door incident. I’m being careful not to spoil anything here (as there is a lovely twist at the end) but it’s very hard not to see this.
The accompanying author notes after the book’s bittersweet conclusion do go some way to soften this, and there’s some great material here that help to show the inner-workings of Stacey Lee’s writings.
Plot beats aside, the stylistic side of this novel is great. Similes are beautifully constructed, some of the descriptions are perfectly on-point while the character development for most of the main players is pretty good too.
That’s to say nothing of the foreshadowing either, and mixed with the Chinese influences, gives a completely different flavour than one may be expecting. As a personal gripe, there’s a few too many fish analogies dotted along the way for my liking, but it’s a minor gripe.
Luck of the Titanic is an interesting character examination and it certainly does well to shed light on the criminally under-reported influence of Chinese passengers aboard the unsinkable vessel. Sadly, this book takes way too long to inject any sort of dramatic tension into the novel.
Short chapters and beautiful descriptions can only go so far, and this book runs out of luck long before things start getting good. It’s not a bad book per-se, and if you can go in with some patience you should find enough to like. It’s just unfortunate that the flaws that are here hold this back from being a better historical fiction novel.