Published by Simon & Schuster
Publication date: November 1st 2016
What do you do with your life when you’re seventeen and thanks to you your best friend is in a permanent vegetative state? If you’re Shelby you give up college, try to kill yourself, spend time in a psychiatric hospital and when released, shave your head. She is a wraith living in her parent’s basement when Alice Hoffman’s Faithful begins. If this sounds off-putting in its intensity, it’s worth noting the novel weighs in at only 270 pages so Hoffman does not dwell on the details of Shelby’s self-destruction. Instead, with patient prose, Hoffman moves Shelby through a life that happens despite her sense of unworthiness.
When she finally exits the basement Shelby moves to New York City and gets a job at a pet store for the simple reason that
She has never wanted to be involved with people. People are dangerous, unreliable, stupid, greedy, needy, breakable.
She tries to keep her life as small as she can make it, but once started it has its own momentum and years pass, with the memory of her self-loathing fading. Hoffman fills this passage with an unconventional cast of boyfriends, co-workers, street people and neighbors, all of whom are damaged in their own way. There is even a stranger who, ever since the accident, has been sending Shelby hand-drawn postcards with just two words on them. One word is always “Something” and the other changes each time, from “Say” to “Do” to “Trust”. They arrive sporadically, but seem to appear when she needs them most.
She acts like she’s not excited to have gotten mail, but she is. There is someone, somewhere who knows she’s alive.
With these simple gestures and small actions Hoffman takes real, painful life situations and infuses them with enough quirkiness to soften their edges. Faithful encompasses some of life’s largest themes, but she writes them from the smallest perspective, creating an intimacy that strengthens their impact. By and large this works in the book’s favor, but there are a few plotlines and situations that felt artificial. They tempered my feelings about Faithful, but not enough that I stopped caring about Shelby. This is due, in no small part, to Sue, her mother. Hoffman’s depiction of maternal love, without embellishment or dramatics, is poignant. The arc of child and mother to adult and mother is the strongest of the novel and is a powerful component in the believability of Shelby’s journey. There may be fanciful aspects of Faithful that don’t work for some readers, but, I found myself touched by the world Hoffman creates.