Book review: Faithful by Alice Hoffman

Faithful by Alice Hoffman
Faithful by Alice Hoffman

When a teenager escapes with her life in a tragic accident, instead of counting her blessings she embarks on a journey of self-destruction.

Overcome by survivor guilt and the living death of her now comatose best friend, Shelby Richmond must learn how to break free from the cruel world she now inhabits… and in which she has become a willing prisoner.

Alice Hoffman, US author of The Marriage of Opposites and The Dovekeepers, reaches deep into the hearts of her readers in this emotional, acutely observed and soul-searching novel about a young woman struggling to redefine herself, and discovering the redemptive power of love, family, friends and fate.

Using her beautifully adept prose, prodigious creativity and empathetic imagination, Hoffman explores with unflinching honesty how those scarred and cowed by trauma and tragedy often punish themselves as an extreme coping mechanism.

Growing up on Long Island, Shelby Richmond was an ordinary high school teenager until one night two years ago when an extraordinary tragedy changed her fate and brought her life to a halt. Shelby is convinced she is responsible for the car crash that left her best friend Helene in a coma.

Helene’s future was destroyed forever while Shelby walked away… but with a burden of guilt that has turned her life inside out and left her in a self-imposed exile. While Helene lies in a hospital bed at home, kept alive only by a feeding tube, Shelby lives in the twilight of her parents’ basement.

After the accident, Shelby stopped talking and eating, she cut her wrists and shaved her head but then she started getting mysterious notes, pleading with her to take charge of her life again, from what she is convinced is her guardian angel, the same angel who rescued her after the car crash.

With former fellow high school student Ben Mink at her side, Shelby leaves Long Island and heads for New York City where she finds a job cleaning cages at a pet store and meets the marvellous Maravelle, a single mother with three children and a fine line in earthy scepticism.

As Shelby fights her way back to her own future, she finds a whole circle of lost and found souls, and some men she should really stay away from, but can her dark suffering ever end in happiness?

Shelby is an engaging heroine… her scratchy vulnerability, her reckless behaviour, her black humour and her aching sense of isolation are portrayed with insight, an innate warmth and with devastating frankness.

And Hoffman cannot resist the temptation to include a seductive soupçon of her trademark magic realism with the mysterious guardian angel happily rubbing shoulders with a cast of quirky, decidedly down-to-earth characters, each a catalyst on Shelby’s long road to recovery.

As Shelby herself remarks on her rite of passage, ‘What is behind you is gone, what is in front of you awaits.’ Hitching a ride with this troubled young woman is well worth the fare…

(Scribner, hardback, £16.99)