Faithful – Alice Hoffman

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7/10. Lovely cover but the detail is lost at thumbnail size – and we don’t need ‘a novel’!

“Growing up on Long Island, Shelby Richmond is an ordinary girl until one night an extraordinary tragedy changes her fate. Her best friend’s future is destroyed in an accident, while Shelby walks away with the burden of guilt. What happens when a life is turned inside out? When love is something so distant it may as well be a star in the sky? Faithful is the story of a survivor, filled with emotion – from dark suffering to true happiness – a moving portrait of a young woman finding her way in the modern world. A fan of Chinese food, dogs, bookstores, and men she should stay away from, Shelby has to fight her way back to her own future. In New York City she finds a circle of lost and found souls – including an angel who’s been watching over her ever since that fateful icy night.”

The blurb for Faithful goes on to describe Shelby, the protagonist of Alice Hoffman’s tender novel, as ‘a character you will fall in love with, so believable and real and endearing, that she captures both the ache of loneliness and the joy of finding yourself at last’. And the blurb wasn’t lying. It’s Shelby who is at the heart of and who makes this gorgeous novel.

I’ve never read any of Alice Hoffman’s books before, but as soon as I opened Faithful I found my new favourite book. It’s a bildungsroman of sorts, featuring Shelby, a girl who is barely living. Out driving with her best friend one day – her belt buckled, her best friend’s not – she crashes in the snowy weather. Shelby walks away unscathed, but her best friend Helene is left permanently brain damaged. Mired in guilt, Shelby refuses to enjoy her life in any way. Food, entertainment, clothes, fun, friends – she eschews them all, shaves her head and shuts herself away from everyone, suffering from anxiety, depression and survivor’s guilt. Surviving is all she’s doing, and she doesn’t even feel worthy of that.

Her unlikely escape from the claustrophobic town she’s grown up in comes in two forms: first, an anonymous postcard, encouraging her to ‘Say Something’; second, Ben Mink, the local drug dealer and a loner who’s always admired Shelby from afar. Despite Shelby’s attempts to resist his friendship – and then courtship – they move to New York together, where Shelby tries to keep living without living. But bit by bit, a existence of sorts starts to fall into pieces. Shelby finally finds some food she enjoys – her and Ben practically subsist on Chinese takeaways – and she becomes a sort of dog vigilante, adopting or appropriating dogs that she sees being mistreated as her own. A job at a pet store leads to bigger career opportunities – a well as an unexpected batch of new friends – and her relationship with Ben takes her on to better places too.

As the jigsaw pieces of Shelby’s higgeldy-piggeldy life fall into place, the mysterious postcards keep turning up. They’re always very simple, but entirely apt for her current place in life, urging her on to the next level of living – ‘Do Something’, ‘Be Something’, ‘Feel Something’ – and not only putting her back together again but also allowing her to gradually find redemption.

Faithful has its ups and downs, just like real life – family problems, money problems, breakups, broken hearts – making this read utterly relatable and realistic. Through it all, Shelby heals and grows, learning to rely on herself, her beloved pets, those around her and the succinct, encouraging words that are delivered to her sporadically over the years; rather than religious beliefs, it’s the postcards that Shelby chooses to follow, whether subconsciously or not. Will Shelby ever meet the author of the poignant notes – and if she does, will that person match up to what she’s built them up to be?

A beautiful, tender, exquisite, fragile, bittersweet novel – I need a thesaurus to keep raving about this book – I fell in love with Faithful from the very first page. I’ve never read any of Alice Hoffman’s books before, but I certainly will now.

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