Faithful by Alice Hoffman
I received a free ARC of this book via Netgalley; this, in no way, has affected my thoughts and review.
Shelby Richmond was the golden girl of her small suburban town in Long Island. She had friends, she was beautiful, she did well in school- everything was good until one fateful night when one car accident upturned her entire life. Shelby was driving with her best friend, Helene, in the passenger seat. The accident left Helene in a coma, and Shelby – overcome with guilt, rage and the sheer unfairness of it all – gets sent to a psychiatric clinic, shaves her head and becomes a recluse. When she moves to New York City with a ‘friend’ from home, Shelby is broken, isolated and distraught… but will the city give her the healing and power to move on with her life?
Faithful is one of those books that you can’t put down, simply because it’s so addictive. Hoffman writes with poise and grace, never overdoing her metaphors but never leaving her writing bare either. Her writing flows beautifully, pulling you in with its simplicity. The pacing, too, in this book is so well-done. Each scene serves a purpose, and even if it doesn’t, it provides a much-needed balance to the complex themes at play in the rest of the novel.
But perhaps what made this novel soar above and beyond my expectations was the abundance of strong female relationships. Friendships, caretaker, mother-daughter, the-other-woman, even complete freaking strangers- Hoffman does such an incredible job at crafting and developing nuanced, layered female dynamics, something which I’ve seen so little of in books. Moreover, I have read very few books where each and every secondary character has drawn me in so completely, and this was one of them. All the side characters were given concrete personalities, all lovable even though they exhibited clear flaws. I can go as far as to say that there were several secondary characters that I liked more than I liked the protagonist.
Which is where my eventual issue lies. Towards the beginning, Shelby’s in a broken state; she’s undergone severe trauma, both with her car crash as well as with the sexual abuse she endured when she was at the psychiatric clinic. She’s experiencing extreme depression, and turns to substance abuse to keep her grounded and sane. We were given the impression that Shelby was a damaged young lady who would have to overcome her mental illness, her flaws, every obstacle thrown at her to become a stronger person eventually. But as the narrative progressed, I came to realize that Shelby was – frustratingly – a Mary Sue.
Everything, and I mean everything, was handed to her. Her difficulties occurred before the novel took place- after the story starts, she was surrounded by a large network of people who loved and supported her, and she pushed them away – but endearingly so. Shelby’s good at everything when she wants to be. She’s an animal-person, she’s great with kids, she’s great at her job, she’s beautiful, she’s strong, she’s the perfect daughter. She’s quite literally perfect. Which is perhaps the worst thing that a protagonist can be, because it diminishes their struggle, and spoils any semblance of conflict because we are certain that the protagonist will overcome all difficulty with her perfection. I enjoyed seeing Shelby develop from a reclusive young girl to a forgiving, open woman but her actual path of development was so… homogenous and un-complex that I simply did not care. On top of this, her struggles with mental illness were tossed aside after the initial chapter, and the tone took such a drastically different path that I almost thought I was reading a different story.
Ultimately, this is a book that had a lot going for it- a book that you can get through in a ridiculously short amount of time because the very prose is amicable and addictive. But when the strong themes and superficial messages are stripped away, you realize that the protagonist’s struggle is so unrealistic and uninspiring that the magic is severely dented.
Trigger Warning: Sexual abuse