Shreve is a gifted storyteller, her new novel a believable drama of contemporary life. When Vermont EMT Peter Webster sets eyes on Sheila Arsenault, it is while providing emergency medical assistance at a car wreck, her blood sugar significantly elevated. But Sheila’s obvious inebriation is a minor blip on Peter’s radar, a young man who has fallen in love with a damsel in distress, a dark-haired beauty just passing through on her way to somewhere else.
Impulsively, Webster pursues Sheila, leading prematurely to pregnancy and marriage before either is really emotionally prepared. Baby Rowan is the center of their universe, but all too soon reality intrudes, Peter working long overnight shifts, Sheila trapped in a tiny apartment with a crying baby day after day. When Sheila returns to her old drinking habits, the marriage spirals into the usual heated recriminations followed by brief harmony, the breaking point when Webster is called to the scene of an accident that is none other than his drunken wife and two-year-old daughter. Webster makes a decision that will haunt his future and trample his expectations of family life, the consequences of an action resurfacing after eighteen years when the teenaged Rowan flirts with alcohol as part of her teenaged rebellion.
Shreve shows a family once again in crisis, Webster shouldering the burden of his daughter’s upbringing with no complaint. But Rowan’s erratic behavior frightens him, their usual camaraderie replaced by slamming doors and angry silences. Desperate, Webster turns to Sheila, hoping she will supply the wisdom he is lacking. Although Sheila is clearly the missing link in Rowan’s life, the alcoholism that fractured the family is the real elephant in the living room. With equal authority, Shreve balances the EMT calls Webster faces each shift with the slower wearing away of his marriage and later his daughter’s need for her mother. Although not much is said about Sheila’s struggle in terms of alcoholism, the damage to the family is irrefutable, a story Webster relegates to the past until Rowan’s behavior becomes alarming.
Shreve uses the changing seasons in Vermont as a background to her character’s dramas - the promise of spring, the chill of winter, the long, fallow years when Webster is too busy to do anything but raise his daughter and work. These are all good people - Webster’s parents, his coworkers - all folks who accept their lot with few complaints. It’s hard not to root for Shreve’s characters, each burdened in his own way, the lost years demanding an accounting when Rowan goes out of control. In an affecting tale of tragedy come full circle, Shreve reminds us that forgiveness is always an option.