“Faithful” by Alice Hoffman; Simon & Schuster; November 2016; 272 pp; $26.
By Ann Jonas
For The Visitor
Best-selling author Alice Hoffman has written 23 novels, along with eight books for children and young adults and three books of short fiction. Her newest novel, “Faithful,” is contemporary fiction at its best.
Shelby Richmond, the main character in the book, is a typical, active 17-year-old girl until the night she is involved in a tragic car accident in which her best friend Helene is seriously injured. As a result, Helene is in a vegetative state, with virtually no chance to improve, and Shelby, who was driving when the accident occurred, is fraught with guilt.
She becomes a loner, suffers from depression and is certain she can never be forgiven. After she attempts suicide, Shelby is admitted to a psychiatric hospital. While there, she is abused by an orderly. Her mother, who is trying with all her heart to help Shelby, takes her home when she hears what has happened. For months, Shelby struggles, spending most of her time in her parents’ basement, believing that she doesn’t deserve any happiness.
Ben Mink, who was a schoolmate of Shelby’s, ends up being the one person Shelby feels comfortable with, even though he was a misfit in school and Shelby ran with the popular crowd. When they meet in a nearby park as “two loners who can barely make it through their own lives,” they talk sparingly. Shelby sometimes buys weed from him and soon they become friends.
Shelby and Ben move together to New York City when Ben starts pharmaceutical college. Shelby gets a job in a pet store, cleaning cages and unpacking boxes of pet food, but still refuses to accept any joy in her life. She tries to avoid contact with her co-workers, but eventually becomes friends with Maravelle, a mother of three, who provides some good guidance to Shelby.
Every so often, Shelby receives an unsigned postcard in the mail with a word or phrase of encouragement; “Be something,” “Believe something,” “Save something” are some of the messages she receives. Shelby — and readers — have no idea who is sending them or what, exactly, is meant by the notes.
Shelby is most definitely a miserable character in much of the book, but despite her belief that she is undeserving of love, and even though she makes many poor decisions, readers will pull for her. Gradually, she develops some strong relationships, makes some wise decisions and finds her way in the world.
“Faithful” is a moving story of a young woman who overcomes a great deal with the help of friends and her mother. Her relationship with her mother is especially poignant; in BookPage, a monthly book review publication, Hoffman states that Shelby’s relationship with her mother is “very relatable to everyone who has ever had a difficult daughter, or been one.”
Hoffman is a skilled author who writes with emotion and meaning. Her character development in “Faithful” is exemplary and her story line is incredibly moving. This novel will touch readers with its compassion and powerful narrative.
“Faithful” is available in bookstores everywhere, including the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University Bookstores.
Ann Jonas is the general book buyer for the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.