By Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster, 288 pages
The latest novel by Alice Hoffman is more personal and less sweeping in scope than recent works such as The Marriage of Opposites or The Museum of Ordinary Things. In tone, though not subject, it's more evocative of works from the 1990s such as Turtle Moon or Practical Magic. As such, it probably won't thrill those seeking highbrow literature, but like most of Ms Hoffman's books, Faithful charms in ways that make the reader yearn for just a wee bit more.
This one follows the saga of suburbanite Shelby Richmond, a happy-go-lucky high schooler whose world is shattered in an instant when she's behind the wheel on an icy night and spins out of control. Although the crash is an accident in the literal sense of that word—no recklessness or substance abuse to blame–Shelby is consumed by guilt when she walks away unscathed, but her BFF Helene–the high school golden girl—is left comatose. Faithful is a tale of loss, self-inflicted punishment, and the struggle to live in moments present and future rather than a single tragic point from the past. When has one suffered enough for one's sins (real and imagined)? How does one know when it's time to move on? It doesn't help Shelby's process when stories begin to circulate of small miracles associated with viewing Helene reposing in angelic and comatose in her parents' home. Call it survivor's guilt or call it post traumatic stress disorder, Shelby simply can't get beyond the feeling that she, not Helene, should have been the victim. Since she wasn't, Shelby victimizes herself.
In the tradition of Great Expectations, Shelby has benefactors who seek to help her, including Ben Mink, her pot dealer, but one with ambitions of becoming a pharmacist. At first, Ben reminded me a lot of Gus in Hoffman's The River King, but I'm glad she veered in another direction. We witness Shelby leave Long Island for New York City, with Ben, but the Big Apple is not a Big Magic Wand–Shelby's struggles continue and she's really not cut out for anything more demanding than working at a pet store. There she meets another touchstone: Maravelle Diaz, a single mother with three children, but with bigger dreams than Shelby allows herself. There is also a mysterious Guardian Angel who periodically sends postcards with Hallmark-like upbeat messages: "Save something," "Forgive someone," etc. Hoffman cleverly juxtaposes these seemingly trite notes with the ones often tucked inside Chinese fortune cookies–something we know but Shelby doesn't. Though she pretty much subsists on takeout Chinese food, Shelby steadfastly refuses to crack open a fortune cookie, as befits one who doesn't think she has a future.
Without revealing any plot details, let me say that the book also deals with rescuing imperiled dogs, musing on the meaning of family, reluctant role models, and acceptance. We also learn along with Shelby that quite a few other people need to learn how and when to let go. Don't expect Practical Magic or The River King; most of this book's miracles are less dramatic, but more real. If you get sentimentally caught up in novels, a warning–this is not a work for the puppies-and-rainbows crowd. There's palpable pain on the page and you won't like a few of Hoffman's characters. (You're not supposed to like them; they are awful people.) Recognize also that Hoffman has matured as a writer and doesn't feel the need to write fairytale endings any more.
Objectively speaking, it's unlikely that Faithful will be remembered as among Alice Hoffman's greatest works. It's a very good and thoughtful novel that you'll probably sail through–a classic "good read." It feels honest but, like takeout Chinese, it satisfies without quite sating one's hunger. Looking for miracles? Try a fortune cookie.