Two would-be reviewers started Alice Hoffman’s latest novel, “Faithful,” then begged off the assignment.
The first was unprepared for and uncomfortable with Hoffman’s occasional use of raw language and explicit if unerotic sex scenes. The second found the novel to be a bit of slog at the start.
Both were justified in their complaints.
“Faithful,” which Hoffman will discuss at the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center on Monday night, Nov. 14, is a novel about a young adult, but it is not a young-adult novel.
To the extent she feels anything, protagonist Shelby Richmond hates herself when the book begins.
She lost control of her car on an icy Long Island road in February of her senior year of high school, and the crash, which did no permanent physical damage to Shelby, left her best friend, Helene Boyd, in an irreversible coma and as an object of veneration, believed to bring miracles to visitors.
Two years later, after a suicide attempt and a stint in a psychiatric hospital where she was repeatedly raped, Shelby keeps her head shaved and lives in her parents’ basement, sleeping, popping pills, and venturing out at night only to buy and smoke pot.
It’s a dark, dreary, silent existence into which Hoffman drops the reader with stark prose, and the opening 20 pages are tough to get through.
But, intentionally or not, the title “Faithful” refers not just to Shelby and the secret admirer/human angel who sends her postcards with inspirational messages such as “Do something” and “Want something.” It also applies to the fans Hoffman has gained with her dozens of books: Have faith in her, and she will reward you.
Hoffman delivers on the title’s promise.
Escaping her suburban existence for a life of Chinese takeout with her Jewish drug dealer-turned-pharmacy student boyfriend in Brooklyn, Shelby evolves into someone the people around her, the dogs she rescues and finally she herself can like. The reader can’t help but join the crowd.
“Faithful” is not a complicated story; it’s just life, with its twists and turns, tragedies and triumphs, and everyday kindnesses and cruelties. Hoffman’s characters and their development, however, transform that simple and sometimes rough read into a delight.