The latest upcoming novel from author Stacey Lee, Luck of the Titanic offers a much-needed perspective on history. While it grips too tightly on historical recreation at times, it’s an introspective study of the Titanic and the Chinese individuals who were a part of it.
Luck of the Titanic tells the story of British-Chinese acrobat Valora Luck who disguises herself as a boy to reunite with her twin brother Jamie. Her mission? To perform for a circus owner with her brother so that they both can get into America.
Lee highlights her characters exceptionally well and makes sure to emphasize the relationship between the two siblings. Valora and Jamie have different ideas of what they want from life, and this conflict is rendered from all angles. The characters on the ship have some insightful, witty dialogue and a lot more shenanigans, not to mention that Valora’s personality and backstory provide the complexity she deserves as a strong female lead.
As a novel, though, the story meanders, possibly because the premise doesn’t feel strong enough for a complete plot. Luck of the Titanic feels like it’s building up to something (the Titanic sinking), but ultimately doesn’t execute. There’s a small burgeoning romance that isn’t quite developed. The story weighs itself down in describing every element of the ship and the people on it that it’s difficult to navigate where the actual story is.
Here Lee gets a little messy in the descriptions, as if she’s gotten lost in the layout of the Titanic and doesn’t quite know where to turn. There’s so much information given about the details of the Titanic that it becomes an overload of research spread out over the page, especially when the author describes the soap that Valora uses (answer: it’s bergamot).
This rich exploration does serve to vivify the setting in certain ways. The reader journeys through the Titanic with Valora and gets to see this historical moment through a Chinese perspective. Elements of Chinese culture are simultaneously fleshed out and subtle enough that they don’t overshadow the main focus of the story. Coupled with a hefty amount of familial dynamics, this idea of carving out one’s destiny is detailed in an insightful way that nuances Valora’s own motivations.
When the Titanic starts sinking, Valora states: “[I] say a prayer that a woman who looks like me will still be worth saving.” It’s a surprising but needed way of speaking about race, and it’s done so thoughtfully that it’s a tense reminder of the time period.
There’s a lot of compelling discussions about political context, especially the oft-cited notion of the American Dream faced with the reality of the Chinese Exclusion Act. While this idea could be revisited a bit more, Lee makes it clear that Valora is the center of the story. It’s a good way to delve into the intricacies of the character, and Lee does that not altogether unsuccessfully. It just seems like the story ultimately floats around in the depth of details and doesn’t fully take the time to explore them effectively.
Overall, Luck of the Titanic is a well-written look at the Titanic. Lee knows her history, and though not the most satisfactory full-length novel, it is worth reading as a deep dive into a story of Chinese people on the Titanic, a narrative that like the ship itself, feels hidden, ready to be explored. While Lee excavates part of it, it feels like there’s more to be found.