At night, Shelby leaves her parents’ basement and walks the streets of her suburban town in black boots, her head shaved and her heart empty.
Sometimes at 2 or 3 in the morning, her mother will drive around searching for Shelby, but Shelby hides in the bushes when she hears her mother’s voice.
“She never answers. She’s simply not worthy of her mother’s love.”
In her new novel, “Faithful,” Alice Hoffman gives us a young woman riddled with guilt and self-loathing, so closed-off and self-destructive she seems half-dead. Watching Shelby fight her way back and make herself worthy is both painful and cleansing.
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On a February night when Shelby was 17, she and her best friend, Helene, hit an icy patch on Route 110. The car started spinning, there was a crunch and that was the end of life as they knew it.
Helene never woke up. For years afterward, she lay comatose in her bedroom, kept alive by machines. Helene’s injury kicked off a series of unexplained events and people came to believe she had healing powers. People visited from all over the world: “The roses always bloom on the day of the accident, huge, blood-red flowers that are impervious to snow and ice. Roses in February are clearly a miracle, and they’ve been photographed and set on the front page of Newsday.”
Shelby was behind the wheel that night. She wasn’t physically hurt, but her mother sometimes wonders whether Shelby truly survived. After diagnoses of depression, post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt, she spends most of the next two years in her parents’ basement. She shaves her head, stops speaking, cuts herself in places no one can see. She is, she believes, “paying her penance” for the accident.
One thing gives her hope: After the accident, she starts receiving postcards. Sent anonymously, each contains a photo or drawing and a single instruction: “Say something.” “Be something.” “Feel something.”
The postcards arrive months or years apart, but Shelby never stops looking for them, puzzling over what they could mean. “She feels a little chill of expectation down her spine. There is someone, somewhere, who knows she’s alive.”
She moves to New York with a pot-dealing ex-classmate who has fallen in love with her. She gets a job at a pet store where, despite her best efforts, she makes a friend. She works hard, feeds people on the street, rescues animals. In doing penance, she becomes better than she ever was before. And slowly, she allows herself to be tangled into other people’s lives, learns to love them and let them love her. Meanwhile, the postcards keep coming, urging her gently to “see something,” “save something,” “believe something.”
“Faithful” starts as a story about two teenagers who have been in a car accident. That it becomes something else entirely is both the novel’s strength and its weakness.
Helene never feels like a real person; she and Shelby were best friends, but they don’t seem to have shared much more than being pretty and popular. Had Helene died in that accident, Shelby’s story of guilt and penance would be the same. The story also contains a few contrived twists.
Finally, there’s the matter of Helene’s healing powers. Hoffman’s work often contains some magical realism, but here it feels unnecessary and underexplored. And ultimately, it doesn’t really matter, either to Shelby or to the story.
But “Faithful” is still a good read, and an emotionally rewarding one. Shelby is real and unwittingly charismatic, a young woman fighting through blinding guilt to create a new, meaningful life. Far from unworthy, she is, in fact, the one we care about most.
By Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster, 272 pages