"Pemberton's a man unafraid of challenges, which is why I married him." Serena paused, a slight smile creasing her face. "And why he married me." (1.29)
As we get to know Serena and Pemberton as a couple, we learn that they are attracted to each other because they aren't afraid of anything. It isn't the stuff of Hallmark cards, but we guess it's sweet in its own way.
Pemberton would hear their quick breaths and not know which were Serena's and which his. A kind of annihilation, that was what Serena called their coupling, and though Pemberton would never have thought to describe it that way, he knew her words had named the thing exactly. (1.149)
Serena describes their sex life as "a kind of annihilation," which begs the question, who or what is being annihilated? Later during the fire, Pemberton admits that her words are perfect. We might question whether it's really love if something is dying, but that could be the romantic in us.
Rachel had believed she was in love, though since he'd been the first man she'd ever kissed, much less lain down with, how could she know. Rachel thought how maybe the Widow was right. If she'd had a mother who'd not left when Rachel was five, maybe she would have known better. (3.28)
Poor Rachel. She's so young to have to deal with such heavy issues. It's not long before she figures out that love—or what she thought was love—is like a kick in the pants sometimes. While she thought hooking up with Pemberton was a good idea at the time, she is saddled with a baby before she knows it.
What made losing someone you loved bearable was not remembering but forgetting. Forgetting small things first, the smell of the soap her mother had bathed with, the color of the dress she'd worn to church, then after a while the sound of her mother's voice, the color of her hair. It amazed Rachel how much you could forget, and everything you forgot made that person less alive inside you until you could finally endure it. (3.60)
As Rachel thinks about her parents, she realizes that the pain of losing them subsides as she forgets things about them. It's almost as if they're being erased.
And now this brown-eyed child. Don't love it, Rachel told herself. Don't love anything that can be taken away. (3.61)
Rachel thinks about her baby and decides she won't love it because then she won't get hurt. Um, okay—good luck with that one. Even though this is just a defense mechanism, it also tells us a lot about the nature of love: It's something you can't always control.
"What you told Galloway is the truth," Pemberton said as they entered the camp. "If the bear had attacked you instead of me, I would have done the same for you."
"I know," Serena said, clasping Pemberton's hand tighter. "I've known it since the night we met." (6.84-85)
Guy meets girl. Guy marries girl. Girl kills bear for guy. Sounds romantic enough to us. Serena and Pemberton share something that only they truly understand. It's not the stuff of mushy love stories, but it is a passionate, deep type of love that is genuine. Or so it seems here, anyway…
"This is what we want," she said, her voice deepening, the emotion so often controlled fully unbridled now. "To be like this always. No past or future, pure enough to live totally in the present." (8.9)
This is exactly how love should be, according to Serena. She is so content in the moment that she doesn't need to think about what's going to happen next. Sounds nice. Yet even Serena can't stick to this, and before long, she's researching and lining up donors for her next big break: Brazil.
"You cut up your feet pretty good, but nothing deep enough to need stitches. That was almost a mile walk and you sick as him, and barefoot to boot. I don't know how you did it. You must love that child dear as life." (9.31)
When the doc says this to Rachel after her fever, she realizes that she does love Jacob. Gee, you think? The bond between this mom and son is so deep and profound that nothing care tear them apart, not even a bully with a knife.
"She tried. She told your daddy if he really loved you that he'd let you go, because you'd have a better life if you left here. A lot of folks argued against him for not letting you. They claimed what she said, that if he really loved you he'd have let you go. They thought he did it to spite your mother." (20.32)
Since Rachel's mom left when she was little, she never really understood what went down. It's important for Rachel to realize that her parents did love her, each of them in their own way.