Alice Hoffman returns to the fascinating landscape of contemporary magical realism in Faithful, where the world is defined by unseen forces. This novel expresses the universal truths that Hoffman has been tracking throughout her large body of work—tragedy isn’t preceded, guilt can fester and consume its host, and often there is no remedy for loss.
Shelby Richmond and Helene Boyd are average teenage girls at the whim of their own faults and caught up in the swing of every day motion, when both of their lives are swiftly altered beyond recognition. Shelby and Helene narrowly escape death after a car accident on an icy road. Although Shelby escapes largely unharmed, Helene becomes stuck in an endless sleep.
Hoffman instantly impresses in these first pages, conjuring a communal narrative of shrines and lore. The story centers on the survivor, Shelby, and begins as if reading an urban legend. Hoffman accomplishes this by using elements of the town’s narrative—people whispering behind Shelby in the gas station, inextinguishable candles at the scene of the accident—to sew together both Shelby’s feelings about the accident and the overall tone of the story.
Shelby’s character changes drastically from beginning to end. Yet, this transformation is as subtly nuanced as in real life, making it difficult to tell from one moment to the next whether we’ve entered the mind of a “new Shelby.” What we know for sure is that by the end of the novel, she evolves from a traumatized version of herself to the person she hopes to be. It’s an elegant expression of the uncertainty in early adulthood, especially with the added obstacle of extreme tragedy. Hoffman handles Shelby’s adolescent traumas by allowing them to haunt her character and influence her decisions on some level. All of what makes Shelby a compelling character lies in the way she moves on from terrifying experiences. It gives hope to readers that whether life is fated or not, everything is undeniably affected.
The only downfall of Faithful is its use of Helene’s tragedy. In the beginning, Helene is built up as a miraculous legend. She is kept in her unchanging childhood bedroom. The town and her parents build up a culture of faith surrounding Helene’s immobile body; those who visit her are healed from previously incurable problems. It seems to be the vehicle that will drive the plot. But this cult of faithfulness drops off when Shelby escapes her home town and moves to New York. Helene’s presence disappears from the page, and then, so does the magic and miracle that surrounds her. Our distance alongside Shelby creates a vacuum where we miss much of the interesting tension that might surround Helene’s strange existence.
In a way, Faithful functions like real life, moving at a strange and unpredictable pace until the moment we are left with nothing but ourselves. The last page creates the unexpected effect of loss without Shelby to tether us down. Instead, we are hovering above ourselves, forced to consider our own trauma and our own solutions. This feeling, though lacking the pull of a traditional commercial narrative is perhaps why readers continue to return to Hoffman’s work. It inspires us to remain faithful that fiction can still call upon the aesthetic mimesis and make us feel without obvious pandering.
Faithful by Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster
Published November 1, 2016
Alice Hoffman is the author of more than thirty works of fiction, including The Marriage of Opposites, Practical Magic, The Red Garden, Here on Earth, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, and The Dovekeepers. She lives near Boston.