Superficial, but Still Appreciated

The Stranger in the Lifeboat
By Mitch Albom
Harper, pp. 271, $23.99

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Review by Christine Havens

Mitch Albom’s latest novel, The Stranger in the Lifeboat, opens with a mystery. Survivors from a shipwreck, adrift in a lifeboat, pull a young man from the ocean. It’s been three days since the yacht they were on suffered a catastrophic event and sank. There’s no way this person could have survived in the ocean for that long.

To deepen the mystery, he tells the group of 10, in response to their queries, “I am the Lord.” He has appeared because he has heard their pleas for help, but he can only save them if all in the raft “believe I am who I say I am.”

The story moves on from there, unfolding slowly in a notebook kept by Benji, one of those employed on the Galaxy, a yacht owned by a billionaire who has gathered other elites for a “Grand Idea” cruise in order to jumpstart their creativity to further improve the world. Albom also gives readers chapters that show the discovery of the raft a year after the wreck, as well as news broadcasts intended to give context for the voyage and for some of the passengers who ended up on the raft.

Ron Charles uses the phrase “superficial spirituality” as a descriptor as he utterly pans the book in his review for The Washington Post. I tend to agree with his assessment; that phrase stuck with me when I saw it on Twitter while I was reading the book. It seems apt and applicable to much of what many people like, given the novel’s bestseller status.

Other reviews, such as the one from Kirkus, are more positive, asserting that Albom’s fans will love it and that it is a thoughtful, heartfelt story sure to make readers cry. I must admit to a moment of misty eyes at one point.

The book felt at times like a Twilight Zone episode or like the series Lost, with easy answers about how God works in the world and how our fates are justly determined by God. That early-on restriction given by the Lord about salvation does not coincide with what I learned at seminary. I also felt manipulated into that moment of tears by one of the clichés of theodicy — a child drowning at the age of 4.

There are other clichés, too — such as the rebellious Irishman blowing up the yacht in payback for the excesses of the rich (trust me, this is not a spoiler). Despite my largely incredulous marginalia scribbled as I read, I do not want to totally dismiss Albom’s work. What I did appreciate is that reading Stranger in the Lifeboat provoked me into rereading the Gospels, and into reconsidering some works of theological fiction that offer deeper insight into questions of God and salvation, such as Piranesi by Susannah Clarke or C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces.

What I valued in Albom’s work was the reminder that God does love us, even if we can only perceive that and witness it to others in our own very human, superficial ways.

Christine Havens is a poet and writer and a graduate of the Seminary of the Southwest whose work has appeared in The Anglican Theological Review and Mockingbird Ministries’ blog, mbird.


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