Peter Webster, a twenty-one-year-old paramedic in rural Vermont, responds to an emergency call that will change his life forever. He pulls Sheila Arsenault from the wreckage of her vehicle. Although Sheila is inebriated, broke, alone, and on the run from something or someone, Peter is instantly drawn to her. Against regulations, he visits her in the hospital and, after her release, at the home where she is renting a room from an elderly couple. Since she no longer has a car, he gives her a lift to the grocery store and drives her to the beautiful spot where he hopes to one day build his own home. When Sheila gets pregnant, the two of them rent a small apartment and marry.
Peter genuinely loves Sheila and is devoted to their daughter, Rowan. But increasingly, Peter must serve as both mother and father to the little girl because Sheila’s drinking threatens not only her healthy and well-being, but their ability to survive as a family. Sheila is restless and unfulfilled as a wife and mother. And then Sheila makes a mistake that causes Peter to be more assertive than he has ever been in his life. Peter knows that he has no choice but to take action in order to protect his daughter. But does he make the right choice when he arranges for Sheila to exit their lives rather than face jail time for driving drunk with their daughter in the car and causing a serious accident?
Years later, as Rowan is finishing high school, she begins partying and engaging in dangerous behavior that includes drinking. Peter knows that he must save his daughter from a self-destructive life and that there is only one person, Sheila, who may be able to get through to her. Rowan hasn’t seen her mother in years — not since Peter drove Sheila out of their lives. He determines that he will find her and ask her to help their daughter. But is it too late for Rowan? Or for Sheila and Peter?
Some people are not self-actualizers. Life just sort of happens to them. They fall into careers, they happen upon friends, they’re not quite sure how they ended up married because they don’t recall proposing (or being proposed to). Such is the case with Peter Webster, who grew up in a small town, graduated from high school, and just fell into a career as a paramedic. Peter is a nondescript character, an everyman in some ways. He always tries to do the right thing, but has never exhibited any real passion about anything except, perhaps, his desire to build a home of his own on a hill outside of town. Rather, Peter is steady, reliable, measured — he has the perfect temperament to be a paramedic.
Yet when Peter meets Sheila, he becomes obsessed with her, even though neither he nor the readers are provided with much information about her past, aside from the later appearance of the ex-boyfriend who demands money. Peter scrapes together enough to send him packing and he is never seen or heard from again. Peter’s behavior is uncharacteristic and the relationship swiftly gets serious. Soon, Sheila becomes pregnant the first time she is with Peter, having lied to him about her use of contraception.
Shreve explores the concept of what it means to be rescued or to rescue someone else. Peter has made a profession of rescuing people from all sorts of calamities. Yet, as Rowan is reaching adulthood, he finds himself helpless to rescue Rowan from herself, her genetic predisposition toward self-destruction and, perhaps, the anger and resentment she has kept hidden inside herself for all the years she has been without a mother. Although Peter attempted to rescue Sheila by giving her a stable, safe life, she was unable to rescue herself from her alcoholism while remaining with Peter and Rowan. So when Sheila endangered Rowan’s life with her drunk driving, Peter rescued her from being held accountable for her actions, facilitating her escape so that she would not have to stand trial for her recklessness. Now Peter hopes that Sheila can rescue their daughter by reappearing in her life and, hopefully, being accepted by Rowan. In the ensuing years, Peter learns that Sheila has not only embraced sobriety, but has become an artist of some renown.
Anita Shreve has long been one of my favorite authors, so I was anxious to read Rescue. Shreve is known for tackling emotionally-laden topics and writing in a brave, straight-forward manner. As an author, she seldom opts for easy or obvious resolutions, as fans of The Weight of Water, for instance, can attest. Her main characters, especially her female protagonists, are frequently brave seekers of truth (a prime example being Kathryn Lyons in The Pilot’s Wife).
Unfortunately, Rescue was a disappointment. The characters are not well-defined and their histories unrevealed. All of the logical questions about Sheila’s past and how she came to be drifting aimlessly when she met Peter remain largely unanswered. Peter is, as noted above, nondescript and unremarkable. His utter ordinariness is the point, of course. But in order to invoke empathy from her readers, Shreve needed to give him more depth and dimension, perhaps revealing more about his childhood and how he came to be the mild-mannered man who never had a serious girlfriend before he met Sheila.
As for plot points, Shreve’s choices felt uncharacteristically safe and uninspired. The ending was totally predictable and felt rushed, as though her publisher rejected the story’s initial ending and Shreve rewrote it out of obligation. The conclusion is simply too tidy, too neat, too pat. Too atypical for a novelist of Shreve’s stature. I recommend skipping Rescue and picking up Fortune’s Rocks, A Wedding in December or one of Shreve’s other wonderful, well-crafted books.