Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 286 pages; 2012.
If you have ever visited my favourite authors page, you will know that I admire Anita Shreve and am slowly but surely working my way through her entire back catalogue. She’s a remarkably prolific writer, but she’s also incredibly consistent and reliable. And when it comes to writing very human stories about ordinary people suffering the effects of love gone wrong, she gives Anne Tyler a run for her money.
A single father worries about his daughter
In Rescue, Shreve’s latest paperback novel (first published in 2010), Peter Webster (known purely as Webster) is a single father raising his 17-year-old daughter, Rowan, in rural Vermont. Webster thinks his daughter may be smoking and drinking behind his back. Well, so what — isn’t that what all teenagers do?
For Webster, these concerns are not so easy to dismiss — and there’s a rather compelling reason for it — but we have to go back 18 years to discover why he is so paranoid about the issue.
The narrative then jumps back to the early 1990s. Webster, a rookie paramedic, is called to attend a road accident in which a female driver, with three and half times the legal limit of alcohol in her blood, has crashed her car into a tree.
Falls in love with the ‘wrong’ woman
After rescuing the woman from the vehicle and effectively saving her life, he is haunted by her glossy hair and her attractive face. When she is released from hospital he breaks protocol to track her down. Her name is Sheila, she’s a few years older than him, she’s feisty, likes a drink and knows how to hustle pool — but she’s also on the run from an abusive partner.
Of course, Webster is blind to the warning signs that this may not be the right woman for him, but he carries on seeing her regardless, and within just a few weeks Sheila has accidentally fallen pregnant. Cue a quickie wedding, some grudging disapproval from Webster’s parents and then a lifetime of misery to follow… Well, I exaggerate slightly, but this is not a match made in heaven.
Despite the heady bliss of moving into a new home, followed by Rowan’s arrival, their relationship soon enters rocky ground: Webster buries himself in work, Sheila takes to the bottle and disaster looms just around the corner.
A marriage unravels
While this synopsis might make the story sound like a bit of a soap opera, Shreve’s restrained style keeps the melodrama at bay. What we get is a compelling story about ordinary people caught up in the drama of their own lives. And because it is framed around Webster — it is written in the third person but we only ever see things from his point of view — it is largely about one man’s attempt to do the right thing by his family, even if that means he must cut ties with the woman he so desperately loves.
There’s plenty of narrative tension as the relationship between these two rather mismatched people reaches melting point. And the excitement of Webster’s job — almost every chapter opens with him attending an emergency call-out — adds an extra thrilling dimension. Indeed, I don’t think it’s drawing too long a bow to suggest that Webster’s career as a paramedic is a metaphor for the marriage he cannot save.
But there are a lot of coincidences in this story, and the scenario that unfolds towards the end (when Sheila re-establishes contact after more than a decade) feels forced and unlikely. Of course, there’s a too-neat and upbeat ending, which grates slightly. But this is Anita Shreve and I’ll forgive her these minor faults, because I think she’s worth reading, if not for the entertainment factor, then her insightful (and truthful) observations into emotional relationships between men and women, children and parents.
I’d suggest tucking this one into your hand luggage if you’re planning a longhaul flight — it’s perfect reading for a plane trip or a holiday.