I like Anita Shreve’s writing, and really enjoyed The Pilot’s Wife. So when I saw Rescue on the shelf at my local dollar store, I swooped in and scooped it up. Maybe I rescued my copy of Rescue. It was a quick read, an interesting story, but ultimately an unsatisfying one.
The story follows Webster, an EMT working in a small, rural area of Vermont. The book opens with Webster unwrapping a birthday gift from his teenage daughter, Rowan. We get the feeling that his relationship with his daughter is strained, but nothing further is revealed. The book then flashed back to Webster’s courtship with Rowan’s mother, Sheila. Webster meets Sheila when she wraps her car around a tree one night after driving drunk. Sheila is a mess. She’s bitchy. She’s clearly an alcoholic. She appears to be running from some kind of abusive relationship. So what does Webster do? He falls in love with her. This is where Shreve really lost me. Why does Webster risk his job as an EMT in a tiny town, where jobs are scarce, a job he worked really hard for, just to date Sheila? Because she has long legs and glossy hair? That’s about all we see of Sheila. She can hustle men at pool. She has sex on the spur of the moment. She smokes, she drinks way too much, and she jumps into bed with Webster. Like an idiot, Webster mumbles “Are you on the pill?” right before they decide to have sex in a bitterly cold field one night. Um, sure, Webster, right. Sheila’s answer is so vague that an idiot can tell she’s not using any protection.
Webster is somehow magically besotted by this unpleasant woman to the point that when she gets pregnant, he decides he has to live with her and marry her. We are told, rather than shown, that he’s absolutely head over heels in love with her. I’ll buy that love can take all sorts of unusual forms, twists and turns in life. How many times have you met a couple and thought, “What in the world does she see in him, or vice versa?” But come on. Sheila has to have some redeeming qualities. The only redeeming quality I see in her is that abortion is out of the question. I would have assumed that someone as screwed up as she is would just want to murder her unborn child, but she is determined to have the baby. So Webster and Sheila marry, they have little Rowan, Webster is the perfect daddy, and Sheila starts drinking.
She descends into an alcoholic’s web of lies and deceit. It all ends in a predictable second car accident, this time also involving Rowan. The two-year old isn’t properly strapped into her car seat, and the car seat is thrown out of the vehicle. Sheila is facing serious jail time. In a second, totally unrealistic action, Webster hands Sheila all the cash he has, gives her the keys to his only car, and helps her escape, but he keeps Rowan. Then the scene shifts and suddenly we are back to the present. What??? Webster just helped her escape DUI charges and serious jail time (she injured another driver as well as almost killed her own child) and…no one suspects he helped her escape? She just gets away with it? Yup. Rowan, unaccountably a model child until she turns 17, suddenly starts drinking. We are never given a plausible reason for Rowan’s abrupt 180 turn from good student-good child to rebellious teenager-budding alcoholic. Oh, except that she looks exactly like Sheila. Rowan is supposedly wracked by shame, guilt and wonder at why her mother abandoned her. Webster never told her the truth. Oh! Shock! Horror! More family secrets!
Rowan does something stupid and almost dies. Webster finds Sheila. She is now an artist. She is sober. Mind you, we never knew she had a hint of artistic talent. She hid in Mexico for years with a lover until she drove back. And Webster is once again besotted with this selfish, shallow woman – for no accountable reason. She still shows no love for him, little love for her child, and a pathological narcissism that makes me nauseous.
Did I like the book? Yes and no. Yes, for an entertaining read, it was okay. Just okay. I finished it – Shreve really is masterful at her craft, and the prose is strong. But the characters and lack of motivation for Webster’s fascination with Sheila kept me from really enjoying the book. I found all of the characters a cipher. Why were they doing what they did? Why did Webster want to rescue everyone? His own parents, his childhood, none of this gave me any clues about his character. Same with Sheila. She seemed to have grown up with a loving sister and in a decent family. What made her turn to alcohol and prostitution before meeting Webster? How did she get sober after all those years – and how did she become this supposedly great artist? Why did Rowan suddenly want to throw away her college chances by drinking? What was her motivation? None of this is explained or hinted at in the book. I’m not sure whether Shreve thought she was being modern and edgy with this tactic or whether I missed it, but I don’t think I missed it.
For a $1 book store find, it was worth it. If you’d like to read it yourself, the link from the picture of the book will take you to Amazon, where you can purchase the book.