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Shelby Richmond is 18. She is living with her parents, smokes weed, and has a shaved head (no, it’s not from cancer). The disease that has gotten her to this sorry state is a soul-deadening combination of survivor’s guilt and suicidal tendencies. FAITHFUL, Alice Hoffman’s latest novel, treads territory familiar to the writer --- a world that is between worlds, between the physical and the metaphysical, where battles are waged between brains and hearts. Shelby’s life has been forever changed by an unfortunate accident. Where is the point? What is the point of living this life? she wonders.

Hoffman comes to those answers without dropping into sentimentality or high drama. The wise and wondrous way that Shelby weaves her story is a primer for how to write about difficult subjects, mining their very marrow for all the pain they have to offer, yet bringing to light all the ways in which the puzzle of this pain can be solved. FAITHFUL is just that --- faithful to life, faithful to hope.

"Hoffman should be commended for finding such a gentle and persuasive tone to keep us in love with this difficult and depressed young woman."

Two years ago, Shelby survived a near-fatal car accident that left her best friend, Helene (a much more perfect girl than Shelby could ever hope to be), comatose. Shelby spends her weeks after the crash walking around a psych ward as she fights for her soul, after botching her suicide attempt. She is surrounded by loving people. Her mother stops at nothing to save her. Her drug dealer, Ben Mink, seems to be falling in love with her. Her friend’s mom and dad even send her birthday presents. Shelby doesn’t feel she deserves any of this. In order to find forgiveness from herself, she must find her own way in the world and grow into the adult only she knows she can be.

Shelby takes the first step towards independence and hits the road to New York City. She lives through the meaningful yet mundane experiences any new adult goes through --- relationships good and bad, jobs good and bad, reliance on a self that only she knows is not quite as mature as she tries to be. When Shelby finds real support from her family of pets, dogs of all shapes and sizes, her life changes immeasurably.

There is a lot to love in Shelby’s struggle, perhaps because it is so particularly recognizable to those of us who have already been through it. Working her way through her pain by living and not hiding from life is a hallmark Hoffman device, but it is ever so moving here as we watch Shelby learn so much in a short time and begin to move past the difficulties that have plagued her for so long. The most important person to love her is herself, of course. With the help of an unexpected angel who watches over her, Shelby journeys to her own heart and mind, finding along the road something she never expected --- the ability to prosper in even the roughest conditions.

Shelby is a young protagonist, and for that Hoffman makes some special arrangements for her. She is prone to all-or-nothing thinking at first; as we watch her mature, we find her reaching new heights of faith. She takes a while to become one of the faithful, certain that this life is worth living, that this Earth is worth walking, that love is worth earning and keeping. Hoffman blends the fantastical with the more everyday plane of life in a way that keeps you hoping that perhaps the fantastic realms are more real than the regular. We are just as Shelby is --- open, inquisitive, wounded by wanting to believe and thrive. And so, in FAITHFUL, Shelby does just that. And we, as readers, do as well.

Hoffman should be commended for finding such a gentle and persuasive tone to keep us in love with this difficult and depressed young woman. Even during the worst of times, we never doubt that she is on a road to salvation, a road completely of her own making. And in this day and age of discussion about the importance of women’s rights and self-esteem, Shelby becomes a beacon, an unconquerable female who can handle both good and bad and make her own life worth living again.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on November 4, 2016

by Alice Hoffman

  • Publication Date: August 1, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1476799229
  • ISBN-13: 9781476799223