Since the publication of her 1998 novel, The Pilot's Wife, Anita Shreve's angst-ridden romances have never been far from the bestseller lists. After a novel set in the heat of East Africa, here she returns to her native New England with a stirring story of trauma room emergency and testing times.
Peter Webster is a rookie paramedic when he receives the call: a young woman has "wrapped" her Cadillac around a tree. The driver is Sheila Arsenault, an alcoholic on the run from a violent partner. It's while cutting the girl from the wreckage that Webster finds himself irresistibly drawn to her glossy chestnut hair, generous mouth and "white bikini underpants".
Ignoring warnings not to fraternise with patients, Webster decides to seek Sheila out. When he tracks her down to a low rent apartment on the outskirts of town, he receives a prickly reception. Undeterred by Sheila's lack of appreciation for his life-saving heroics, Webster is convinced he can "smooth out" out her rough edges and bring this "sexy and beautiful" girl back from the brink.
A storyteller with a talent for precise, painterly prose, Shreve moves the narrative briskly along. Within chapters, Webster and Sheila are living above an ice-cream parlour and expecting a baby. At first Sheila's appearance in the young medic's life seems like a happy accident. The loved-up twosome get married, and Webster finally starts to allow himself to imagine a happy family life. But this is a Shreve novel, and we know from the off that fate won't be kind.
Brought low by the isolation of new motherhood, Sheila once more takes to the bottle. In the novel's dramatic climax, Sheila, fortified by drink, goes out for a drive with baby Rowan in the back, forgetting to strap her in. Fast forward 18 years, and Webster is living alone with his teenage daughter - a young woman who seems to be developing a taste for hard liquor and unsuitable men.
Not Shreve's best novel, this medical melodrama feels contrived and her pronouncements about the fragility of human life clichéd. The narrative switches between scenes of roadside resuscitation and quieter domestic vignettes. Life in working class Vermont is well portrayed, but Shreve's small-towners don't emerge as flesh and blood creations. Rescue might temporarily get our hearts racing, but by the end of the journey we feel like we've been running on empty most of the way.