I’d heard of this book’s release, and I’d certainly heard of Alice Hoffman, but Faithful was low on my radar until I saw it on my library’s new arrivals shelf and got a closer look. I was absolutely drawn in by the beautiful cover, and the description sounded like just the sort of sorrowful tale I was in the mood for during the snowy months, so I picked it up on impulse. It was not a mistake.
About the book: Shelby and her best friend were driving on a snowy night in a Long Island town when the car hit ice and slid off the road. Shelby is home again the very next day, but Helene, her friend, would never never wake from her comatose state. People believe she gained extraordinary healing powers, but Shelby can’t bring herself to visit and find out–believing her guilt and sorrow to be her penance for walking away from the accident while Helene lies ruined, Shelby doesn’t want to be healed. At first, she can barely stand to leave her parents’ basement, except to wander the town alone at night. Ben supplies her with pot at first, and then more than she can ever repay, but Shelby isn’t ready to move on. She sees misery every day, everywhere she goes, and tries to lessen that misery to start paying back her debt of wrongdoing. Her best friends are the dogs she rescues from abuse and neglect, and they keep her going even when she doesn’t want to move. There’s only one person who can save Shelby from herself, but she’s not sure he/she even exists. Shelby is receiving postcards from some anonymous source that she thinks may somehow be Helene, or her guardian angel. Someone pulled her out of the car that night before her mother and the ambulance arrived, but Shelby doesn’t remember much, and she doesn’t trust her flashes of recollection. She wishes the angel had helped Helene instead, but the angel knows no mistake was made.
“You rescue something and you’re responsible for it. But maybe that’s what love is. Maybe it’s like a hit-and-run accident; it smashes you before you can think. You do it no matter the cost and you keep on running.”
This book is beautifully dark. The main character starts the book with some pretty serious depression, and it’s the kind of narration that makes your soul weep but at the same time there’s this little voice in the back of your mind that says, “yes, I’ve thought that,” or “I would do the same thing.” In the horrifying scenario of having been involved in the demise of her best friend, Shelby succeeds in showing the narrator just how empty and meaningless life can become after such a tragedy. It’s not the sort of coping that anyone who hasn’t driven their best friend off the road and into a permanent coma can understand, and yet the reader is given this eerily close look at the devastation Shelby faces. We think we can sympathize. But Shelby shows us how much we just don’t know.
“She’s afraid of ruining someone else’s life. She wonders if there’s some sort of poisonous antibody in her blood that hurts anyone she’s close to.”
My favorite thing about this book is that although the emotions run heavy and the narrator is dark and twisted, the pacing of events in Faithful keep the story from becoming a constant sob fest. Shelby is deeply wounded and confused, but she’s out rescuing pets and errant teens and tackling one challenge at a time instead of curling up in a ball and waiting to die. Her thoughts are sticky and sad, but she keeps facing day-to-day life as it’s thrown at her, doing the best she can with what she has. It’s not much, but it keeps the story moving.
“Feelings are best left concealed. They can bite you if you’re not careful. They can eat you alive.”
Another perk: this is a book for animal lovers. Shelby adds more dog friends to her life than people, and the narration gives them each distinct “petsonalities” that are fun to watch throughout the book. And if you’re not a dog person, that’s okay too, because there’s a character who’ll agree with you, saying:
“I’m sticking with books. They never let you down and they don’t judge you.”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. We all have dark thoughts sometimes. Maybe you didn’t send your best friend into a coma in a horrible accident at seventeen, but sometimes the world gets you down anyway. Misery loves company, they say, and it truly did feel a bit cathartic to share some depressing thoughts with someone who really understood them as well as Shelby. I don’t usually reach for particularly sad stories, but that’s the thing–this is the aftermath of the sad story. Shelby is still horribly sad, but it’s a story about finding hope and life again where it was once dead. The messages, ultimately, are positive and encouraging for anyone who feels down about their lot in life. Faithful is definitely more sad than happy, but it ends with the assertion that all is never lost.
- Emma Cline’s The Girls is another great novel about ups and downs and tragedy. Technically, this one features a fictional Manson-like cult in the late 1960’s, but more deeply, it’s about what it means to be a girl, to be human, and/or to have a difficult past. This book shows how easily one can be swept up in trouble and how to cope with the aftermath. It’s a powerful and emotional read about finding oneself.
- Lucky You by Erika Carter is a 2017 release about three girls in their early twenties who escape to a run-down house in the Ozarks to escape their troubles in life but realize they can find problems off the grid, too. This is a coming-of-age story that’s less sad but no less thought-provoking that Faithful; the characters are ridiculous and often wrong, but they’re searching for their place in the world just like anyone else. They merely take an odd path to their destinations. This is a great read for anyone who feels a little lost–because at least you’re not that lost.
P. S. Does anyone have any other Alice Hoffman recommendations for me? I may be interested in reading more works by this author but I don’t know where to start.
Coming up next: my final January read was Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species, a YA stand-alone that features three high school seniors whose paths intersect as their hometown struggles with several instances of rape. Each main character is affected in a different way, but the only way to stop abusers is to stand together and finally tell the truth. It’s a powerful new YA book that every teen should read. Check back early next week for more info.
The Literary Elephant