FAITHFUL, by Alice Hoffman. Simon & Schuster, 258 pp., $26.
Survivor’s guilt can consume a person until she becomes a hollow version of her former self. That’s the case with Shelby Richmond, the main character in “Faithful,” the latest novel from Alice Hoffman, author of “The Marriage of Opposites,” “The Museum of Extraordinary Things” and other books. Shelby is only a teenager when she gets in a terrible car accident on Long Island’s Route 110 while driving around with her best friend, Helene. Shelby is left physically intact but emotionally damaged. Helene, although alive, will never be the same. She subsists on a feeding tube.
Before that fateful night, Shelby “was a good girl with a 3.8 average who planned to go to NYU and study history.” The novel starts two years after the accident, when Shelby is so depressed that instead of going to college, she shaves her head and is still living with her parents. She saves anonymous postcards that are left for her in the mailbox, with messages of encouragement: “Say something,” “Do something,” “Be something.” The only person Shelby really talks to is a former classmate named Ben Mink, who she turns to for marijuana. When Ben confesses he is in love with her, they move from Huntington to New York City. (Hoffman is from Long Island; she grew up in Franklin Square and attended Adelphi University.) Shelby is too numb to feel anything, but she needs to start over again.
Shelby spent time after the accident in a psychiatric ward, where she was repeatedly raped by an orderly. Her self-loathing follows her to the big city; it sustains her. “Maybe she’s empty if she doesn’t latch on to sorrow,” Hoffman writes. “She’s beginning to wonder if perhaps she’s haunting herself.” After getting a job at a pet store, she rescues some dogs from neglectful situations. She befriends her co-worker, Maravelle, and continues along her path to adulthood by becoming a mentor to Maravelle’s children.
It wouldn’t be a coming of age story without heartbreak. Shelby leaves her boyfriend for a charming veterinarian who turns out to be an adulterous jerk, and she realizes she wants to go to veterinarian school. Along the way, she learns unpleasant truths about her own parents’ marriage and continues to get encouraging postcards from the same stranger.
While the story is compelling, there are so many platitudes that the prose itself can be a distraction. “You rescue something and you’re responsible for it,” Hoffman writes. “But maybe that’s what love is. Maybe it’s like a hit-and-run accident; it smashes you before you can think.” And later on, when thinking about her dogs: “She wonders if it’s possible that when she rescued them, they rescued her as well.” During these moments, the writing is embarrassingly earnest and clichéd. And the author finds some bizarre metaphors for love: “Love is a mystery. It’s like an alien abduction. You think you’re on earth, and there you are among the stars.”
“Faithful” is about a young woman finding herself after living through several traumatic situations. Although Hoffman repeatedly reminds the reader how deadened Shelby is, the overall effect works. Shelby is overwhelmed by the idea of loving and losing people. “The responsibility of loving someone is too much for anyone to take,” Hoffman writes, “which is why she’s done her best to avoid it.” She’s a relatable character; someone who internalizes her grief until she learns that she no longer has to blame herself for a tragic accident. It’s only then that she can move on with her life instead of staying frozen in the past. “She tried her best to destroy herself, but she’s still here,” Hoffman writes. For Shelby, that’s a miracle in itself.