“I think of life as a novel,” says Shelby Richmond, the tragic heroine of Alice Hoffman’s newest work of fiction. “You can’t just hop out of the mess you’re in and into another story. You carry it all with you.” “Faithful,” a novel about remorse and redemption, traces the guilt-ridden early chapters in Shelby’s life, the ones that have the ability to make or break her.

Shelby’s penance-centric life dominates “Faithful.” She’s been struggling under the weight of the tragic consequences of a car accident in which she was the teenage driver. She received minor injuries; her best friend Helene remains in a coma. Shelby’s been punishing herself ever since and truly believes she can never punish herself enough. She starts by shaving her head, hiding in her parents’ basement, smoking pot and then having a nervous breakdown. A high school friend persuades her to move with him to New York, but their relationship, like everything else in Shelby’s life, is defined by the accident.

“Faithful” follows Shelby into her 20s as she begins to heal and forgive herself even as she fights moving forward. During this lonely time, she receives anonymous postcards in the mail that say such things as “Believe something,” “Do something” and “Rescue something.” The latter inspires her, fittingly, to rescue abused animals. Later, as she begins to heal and see the possibilities of living a better life, “she wonders if it’s possible that when she rescued them, they rescued her as well.”

The title of Hoffman’s deeply moving novel refers to a quality most of the book’s characters share when it comes to how they feel about Shelby. Shelby’s mother, Sue; Shelby’s friend Maravelle, and her high school friend Ben, as well as a tattoo artist she meets late in the novel, remain faithful to the idea that Shelby is not a bad person. In their eyes, she has redeemed herself many times over. Shelby, though, remains faithful to her guilt.

As she’s done in many of her novels, including last year’s “The Marriage of Opposites,” Hoffman injects touches of magical realism. In “Faithful,” Helene’s enraptured followers believe the coma-trapped young woman can perform miracles. It would seem that only a miracle can save Shelby, although she’s avoided visiting Helene.

It takes a special person, one who also has experienced a tragic event, to finally make Shelby see the possibilities the future might hold. “Every story had the same message: What was deep inside could only be deciphered by someone who understood how easily a heart could be broken,” Hoffman writes. She takes us deep into the human heart, and in a relatable story, deftly examines the healing process.


Carol Memmott, who lives in Virginia, also reviews books for the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post.

By: Alice Hoffman.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 258 pages, $26.