Faithful: A Novel. Alice Hoffman. Simon and Schuster. November 2016. 272 pp. ISBN#: 9781476799209.
A car accident happens in a flash, and Shelby is severely injured. She will recover from these physical wounds but mentally and emotionally she is devastated because her friend, Helene, who was a passenger now lies in a permanent coma. While over a period of time, visitors arrive to visit Helene and are healed of incurable ailments, Shelby can’t bring herself to visit Helene for the miracle of restoring a devastated sense of self-worth. Shelby repeatedly says, “I am nothing,” a short sentence that makes her parents and friends cringe. Little by little, Shelby becomes a recluse in the basement of her home, her own worst enemy, a young teen unable to forgive herself.
Although Shelby lives in a perpetual state of despair, the reader gets gimmers of some spunk still occasionally rising to the surface. This, then, is the story of her recovery, inch by inch, step by step. As part of her self-imposed penance, Shelby has shaven her head and lost a tremendous amount of weight, making her appear almost ghost-like. The reader is almost as desperate as Shelby and wonders if there’s any chance of hope for Shelby or Helene. Ironically, Helene’s mother finds purpose in her daughter’s unspoken mission, to heal and make other persons whole. For Shelby it will, surprisingly, be dogs who contribute to Shelby’s awakening!
At first Shelby identifies with homeless people she meets but is astounded at the hostility and rejection she experiences, that is until she meets Ben. He’s the first person who is frank with her at all times, telling her how her appearance and attitude are horrible. But because it’s done with honesty and without cruelty, a glimmer of the truth he speaks begins to sink past Shelby’s self-hardened exterior. Little by little, Shelby will develop an interest in healing animals, thinking perhaps she should become a veterinarian. She’ll also make some huge mistakes in love but will learn to accept these weaknesses gradually. One can’t forgive the large catastrophes without learning to let go of the small errors.
Alice Hoffman’s writing has certainly evolved over the years. Thoughts and feelings are explored in the depiction of her characters. Instead of pointless and self-destructive words and deeds, Shelby explores the reality of those around her. What looks like love frequently is dependency interlaced with denial. There’s a fine line between the experiences of guilt, self-recrimination, and self-pity. So many layers of thought and feeling are depicted, definitely Hoffman’s gift to explore and express. This novel is fine, fine reading which this reviewer highly recommends! Stunning, dynamic contemporary fiction!