Author appearance: Anita Shreve will discuss her new book at 7 p.m. Tuesday, December 7, at the Margaret Mitchell House, 990 Peachtree Street, Atlanta. Admission is $5 for members and $10 for non-members. Reservations are required. Tickets available online at Margaret Mitchell House or call 404-814-4150.
The place names in Anita Shreve’s latest novel, “Rescue” — her 16th — are shorthand to her themes. The story about Peter Webster, a paramedic who falls in love with a beautiful, drunken young accident victim, is set in the frigid Vermont town of Hartstone — as if to suggest that the world is a heartless or indifferent place. The local hospital is called Mercy, which Shreve seems to propose is the means by which we might save those who damn themselves, or are damned by circumstance.
The attraction of the strait-laced Webster to reckless Sheila Arsenault, a girl gone wild after a wretched childhood, begins with her near-fatal accident and ends several years later, after they’ve gotten married and had a child together, when she commits what Webster considers an unforgivable act. Until then he has been a man who pulls people out of danger, providing safe harbor, but the way he deals with his alcoholic wife, whom he no longer trusts, becomes the action on which the novel turns. By sending Sheila away to fend for herself, he shows her no mercy, but he tells himself it’s in the best interest of their baby daughter.
Eighteen years later, in 2009, in which the story is set, Webster looks back on that action as his now teenage daughter, Rowan, herself flirts with booze, and he asks himself whether what he did was the best thing to do. Though he and Rowan don’t openly speak about her mother, she is the presence made stronger by her absence, and Webster eventually decides to track her down in the hope that she can help him save their daughter from a lurking fate of alcohol abuse. It is convoluted logic — seeking out an alcoholic mother to rescue a potentially alcoholic daughter — and apparently Webster senses beneath the surface his daughter’s hunger for her mother and acts on that. But Shreve, as she so often does, avoids complicating her story by digging too deeply into her main character, moving the narrative swiftly along a simpler, more generic track. Webster is invariably the competent, cool-headed caregiver in an emergency, but surely there is a voyeuristic streak, a hidden lust for drama, in a man who spends his days speeding in an ambulance from one scene of human tragedy to another?
Yet in Shreve’s competent hands, the conventional woman’s novel is alive and well. If what she writes is not exactly a “tearjerker,” full of maudlin twists and turns, it’s a version of it, with enough instances of genuine emotion mixed into occasional melodrama to have made this reader tear up a couple of times. If ratings could be given in teardrops instead of stars, I’d award “Rescue” two tears, at least. That’s not meant facetiously — there’s value in a story that can evoke human pain so credibly, the Rorschach blot in which you can see your own losses, however different they are and even as you’re aware of the author steadily manipulating events to complete the picture.