Monday, October 3, 2016

Book Review: "Faithful" by Alice Hoffman

"Shelby knows what's wrong with her. She is paying her penance. She is stopping her life, matching her breathing so that it has become a counterpart of the slow intake of air of a girl in a coma."

Shelby and Helene were inseparable best friends from the moment they met in childhood. Helene was always known to be the prettier one, and Shelby was fine with that—she was just happy to be part of Helene's orbit. But as often happens with childhood friendships, as high school drew to a close, Shelby became more and more frustrated with Helene's superior attitude, her habit of treating people (including Shelby) with disdain, simply telling them what they want to hear in order to get what she wants.

One night, while driving to a party Shelby doesn't want to go to, but afraid to lose Helene's friendship, there is an accident. Shelby is able to essentially walk away from the accident mostly unharmed (at least physically); Helene is left in an irreversible coma. From that moment on, Shelby knows her life is destined to go nowhere—she must pay the price for destroying her best friend's life. She lives in the basement of her parents' suburban Long Island home, college, and life, for that matter are no longer an option. She burns with anger and guilt, not allowing anyone to get close to her, except the former high school classmate who sells her drugs to numb her pain.

But as Shelby lives every day as if it is her punishment, she has occasional glimmers of hope. She receives anonymous postcards from a shadowy man who she thinks of as her guardian angel, a man who has been watching over her since the night of the accident. But she doesn't know whether this person is real or if someone is playing a joke on her, hoping she'll let her guard down enough to wound her. She moves to New York City and slowly, unexpectedly, starts to eke out traces of a life for herself, although she never allows herself to feel truly happy with anyone or comfortable anywhere, because how would that be fair?

Faithful is an exquisitely beautiful book about feeling unworthy of happiness or success because you believe you must pay the price for a costly misstep. It's a book about being surprised when the people who matter don't walk away no matter how hard you push them to, and realizing that one accident doesn't mean you are damaged goods forever. But more than that it's a book about learning to give yourself to other people again, learning to let yourself experience the joys of friendship, love, and having people depend on you—and realize that you can't punish yourself forever.

This book started off a little slow, and I wasn't sure if I would enjoy it, because at the beginning, Shelby is a miserable character. (Rightfully so, but still...) The tone and the subject matter reminded me a little bit of Susan Perabo's The Fall of Lisa Bellow (which I just read), in that one girl wonders why she was able to evade the disaster which befell another. But little by little, as Shelby's tough, angry, hurting exterior started to give way, I fell in love with this incredible story and these characters.

Not everything in this book works perfectly, but the emotion and the heart of the plot are just amazing. There were times I worried that Alice Hoffman was going to veer the plot into truly bleak territory and I think I might have given up on the book if she did, but she just kept letting the reader discover the kind of person Shelby was, at just about the same time Shelby was rediscovering that. Shelby is a fascinating, well-drawn character I just loved reading about.

I've read so many of Hoffman's books over the years, and I've always been a huge fan. (Here on Earth, while perhaps a little melodramatic, is one of my all-time favorites.) But because the subjects of her last few books didn't appeal to me, I had nearly forgotten how much I love the way she writes. I'm so happy to have "found" her again, because despite its faults, I really loved Faithful. I just don't think you can go wrong with a book that gives you a little bit of hope, you know?

NetGalley and Simon & Schuster provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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