A born storyteller, Shreve does a beautiful job in her description of a family in distress, a relationship crippled by a tragedy waiting in the wings. When Vermont EMT Peter Webster first sees Sheila Arsenault, she requires emergency assistance at the scene of an accident. Her blood alcohol signals trouble, but what young man in love reads the signs of impending disaster? Without much thought, Webster and Sheila embark on a love affair, for Webster a wonderful and unexpected gift, for Sheila a time out in a chaotic life. Pregnancy leads to marriage, baby Rowan the center of the couple’s lives until the attrition of time and too many sacrifices causes Sheila once again to seek solace in a bottle. A near-tragedy and the course of a Webster’s future is altered. Eighteen years later, a happy, well-adjusted daughter becomes a moody, angry teenager, Webster unable to communicate with the daughter who has become a stranger.
Shreve explores the territory of single parenthood and the loss of what might have been with her usual deft touch, capturing the difficult choices of a man desperate to protect his daughter from her mother’s excesses, his work as an EMT contrasting the dangers in a quiet Vermont town with the previous serenity of his home life. The real villain of the piece is, of course, Sheila’s alcoholism, the reason for the domestic disharmony, the marital arguments and a daughter’s resentment of her mother. Since Webster never really understands Sheila’s drinking, he has no tolerance for Rowan’s experimentation, as though good intentions could keep such a nightmare at bay. Alcoholism is the elephant in the living room, the source of all Webster’s grief and the threat to his confused daughter.
Whether writing historically or of contemporary life, Shreve has a facile touch, her prose fluid and believable as her characters face the unpredictability of choices that deliver hope and pain in equal measure. The responsible Webster, the tragic Sheila and the dangerously rebellious Rowan are vividly portrayed and culturally relevant. No monsters here, only vulnerable humans who stray from the bright promise of youth into the ragged detours that leads to forgiveness.
Rescue; Shreve, Anita; Little, Brown and Company; $26.99