Can a car wreck of a marriage and a family, born of tragedy, be resuscitated by another tragedy?
In "Rescue," her 16th novel, Anita Shreve drives home the theme of, yes, rescue, with little subtlety, marring what could have been a delicate tale of redemption and forgiveness.
Twenty-one-year-old Webster (he has a given name -- Peter -- but only his parents call him that) has vague short-term ambitions and grand long-term ones. Floundering after high school, he becomes a paramedic, hoping to save enough money to eventually buy a particular parcel of land on which to build a small home and survey the Vermont countryside.
The earnest rookie and his partner are called one night to a horrific car wreck caused by a drunken young woman, whom Webster extricates from the car and then can't extricate from his brain. Tall, raven-haired, slightly older and considerably more worldly (if not more world-weary), Sheila Arsenault is trouble on a stick.
Webster tracks Sheila in violation of all ethical behavior, showing up at her house in the guise of helpful public servant, and falls hard for her. During a nighttime drive out to his hoped-for homestead mere days after they meet, a baby is conceived and a marriage is hastily arranged.
The next few years, with the dirt-poor newlyweds and their baby daughter, Rowan, living over an ice cream store, have all the earmarks of a romantic idyll looked back upon with golden nostalgia. But with Sheila still drinking and Webster working long hours, there's little romance, and never a real sense of depth to their relationship.
There's certainly little sense of loss -- only relief -- when Webster calls it quits after drunken Sheila causes another crash that ejects Rowan from the car. She also gravely injures another driver, and jail awaits. Webster, in another ethical lapse, gives her money and an old car and tells her to flee.
Fifteen years later, Webster and Rowan, now a high school senior, are living in his childhood home, the country-house dream long abandoned. He's a seasoned paramedic now; indeed, whole chapters are given over to descriptions of his emergency calls, at the expense of deeper glimpses into his life and relationships. We're told, for instance, that Rowan has been a model child, and we're expected to be as shocked as her father when she starts drinking heavily. It's actually quite predictable.
Desperate, Webster finally tracks down the one person who might be able to help -- Sheila. Their first tentative and tense reunion leads nowhere, but after a spectacular (and predictable) tragedy, Sheila returns. Is Webster's rescue of his family finally complete?
Shreve has given us some engaging characters, but she doesn't let the story flow organically, imposing life-altering traumas that you hope won't occur but come to expect. This story needed fewer bells, whistles and sirens, and more introspection into this lonely man's life.
Cynthia Dickison is a Star Tribune features designer.