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Rescue by Anita Shreve

Few human actions are so taboo as a mother’s abandonment of her child, but when the chilling moment comes, halfway through Anita Shreve’s patchy family drama Rescue, all the reader can feel is relief: at least the little girl is safe, for now.

The scene is as inevitable as it is dreadful. Sheila drives away, banished to an unknown and distant location after causing a car accident that injured herself and Rowan, her small daughter with paramedic Peter Webster, who goes by his surname. The crash occurred because Sheila was drunk, but this is no surprise – the couple met when Webster pried Sheila, intoxicated and near-unconscious, out of another smashed vehicle three years before.

Sheila spells Trouble. She’s an alcoholic with a sketchy past that she refuses to discuss with the enamoured Webster, but no matter. Shreve’s blanks have a way of filling themselves in, and when Sheila’s ex-boyfriend, a police officer, turns up to demand money he claims she owes him, the picture starts coming into focus.

From this encounter we learn that Webster is, to put it kindly, a problem-solver; his way of dealing with the problematic cop is to pay him off. He’s also a quick learner, opting to bite his tongue when ineffectual admonitions go unheeded by his alcoholic girlfriend, and taking action only, finally, when she threatens something he loves more than himself.

Webster, by far Rescue’s most interesting character, is opaque, and his motives for embarking on a certain ill-fated journey with Sheila are unclear, at least at first. Perhaps it is a saviour complex – he does after all spend his working life in and around ambulances, and Shreve peppers the book with detailed episodes of medical emergency – or curiosity, or boredom or a lack of love. Once Sheila’s unplanned pregnancy is discovered, another purpose for Webster’s behaviour is suggested: “This was risk. Risk of the most dangerous and wonderful kind.”

Webster is a vicarious gambler, personally and professionally, and Sheila is a chancer drawn to authority figures and seeming safe havens. Such function-dysfunction can work, but here drives a well-signposted wedge that challenges the couple to confront (separately, one off-stage) their attraction to danger.

The book is weighty with misfortune, and I’m still not sure what Shreve intended Rescue to be: a cautionary tale? A portrait of a broken family? A lesson in loss? It is far from uplifting – in addition to the heavy-duty main plot, the constant calls on Webster’s paramedic skills put paid to that – but despite its maudlin moments, the hopefulness that blossoms in the later pages alleviates the torpidity that afflicts some middle passages.

Though she has had notable successes, the most prominent being the Oprah’s Book Club pick The Pilot’s Wife, I wonder if Shreve’s constant readers will find what they are looking for in Rescue, or if the narrative might have benefited from longer gestation; the novel ends just as Sheila is finally acquiring some dimension.

Shreve’s conceit is to create a dramatic schism between a couple, give them more than 15 years apart and then, with another combustible plot turn, reunite them and find out if they’ve learned anything. In this fiction, people grow more interesting with age.

Review previously published on

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones


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