Allow plenty of time if you pick up Hoffman’s latest; you might not be able to put it back down.
by Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster, 259 pp., $28
Confessions of a Binge Reader: I was only going to read a few pages of Alice Hoffman’s new novel, “Faithful,” just as a sort of preliminary check to see what this one is like. Then, all of a sudden, the pages started turning and, KAPOW, there’s the last sentence: “She trusts she’ll find her way.” How did this happen?
This is a luminous book that sucks you in, starting with a terrible loss and a nearly terminal case of survivor’s guilt. High-schooler Shelby Richmond is driving with her best friend, Helene, when their car hits a patch of ice and both girls are nearly killed. Shelby recovers, physically at least; Helene does not, remaining in a coma, her life effectively over.
Shelby barely exists, after a harrowing stay in a mental institution and two years living in her parents’ Long Island basement doing little but smoking pot, watching game shows, cutting herself and shaving her head. Despite the loving care of her bewildered and desperate mother, who searches the neighborhood for her at night while Shelby hides, it initially seems impossible that Shelby can find a way forward past her self-imposed penance for being alive.
And yet, she does, taking tiny steps out of the devastation of her life, with the help of an unlikely cast of characters. There’s the high-school misfit, who deals drugs and dreams of a better future; there’s Shelby’s co-worker at the pet store, who’s a spunky single mother of three and drowning in responsibilities. Shelby’s mother, who has some serious problems of her own, searches for the best ways to help, while Shelby’s unsuccessful father amuses himself with extramarital follies. And there’s a mysterious “angel” who arrives at the scene of the deadly accident, afterward sending her anonymous postcards of hope.
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A cast of abandoned and neglected dogs (whom Shelby rescues) also teaches her how to rescue herself. So do her co-worker’s three kids, for whom she is suddenly responsible and whose problems jerk Shelby right out of her self-punishment.
Though coincidences sometimes play an oversized role in advancing the plot, “Faithful” doesn’t have the magical realism elements that are found in some of Hoffman’s fiction (such as “The Museum of Extraordinary Things” and “Practical Magic”). Nor is it a young-adult novel, strictly speaking — though Shelby and her milieu will surely resonate with younger readers as well as … um, mature reviewers.