Flannery O’Connor, when asked what one of her stories meant, said, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.” The prolific Alice Hoffman’s latest novel announces its subject in the title; its meaning, on the other hand, turns out to be an intricate tapestry that both requires and rewards a reader’s patience. Each of several engaging characters takes a different path to or away from faithfulness. The main beauty lies in the way Hoffman weaves these strands together.
“Faithful” begins as the story of Shelby, who at 17 was driving the car in which her best friend, Helene, is dreadfully injured in an accident. The novel tracks Shelby through the following decade. When we first meet her, she’s been living in her parents’s basement for two years after a suicide attempt and a stay in a mental hospital where she was repeatedly raped by one of the attendants. Self-destructive, mute, and despairing, Shelby has sentenced herself to an indefinite period of punishment for what happened to Helene, now brain dead and on life support. The novel’s first chapter — laying all this out briskly, with scant details and little sense of setting — is painful without being revelatory, and you may be tempted to stop reading. Don’t. Be faithful.
Encouraged by a series of heartening hand-drawn postcards from an anonymous sender, Shelby begins to wobble out into the world. At this point the novel’s pace and language really pick up. Scene after scene gives us characters who, as well as enticing Shelby into investing in life again, are themselves beautifully alive. There’s Ben, a former classmate who persuades Shelby to come and live with him in New York City. There’s Maravelle, a young mother of three, who drags Shelby into family life. There’s Dorian, Maravelle’s 10-year-old son, who inspires the first tentative tingle of affection in Shelby. And there are four dogs and a cat — one borrowed, the rest stolen from abusers — who further awaken Shelby’s sleeping beauty of a heart. Say something, the anonymous postcards arriving at intervals urge her. Be something. Feel something. And she does. Of course, an awakened heart is a heart that can ache, and even break, as Shelby learns. “It’s knowing someone down to their soul that matters,” her mother — another stellar character — offers as a consolation. “That’s what love is.”
“Faithful” is at its best when Hoffman drops down from an eagle’s-eye view of Shelby’s life and takes us inside it. Brisk and funny exchanges between characters reveal them to us and to each other. “You’re weird,” Maravelle’s pre-teen daughter, Jasmine, tells Shelby; “You’re rude,” Shelby shoots back. ‘The world is mine to ruin,” Shelby tells Maravelle, who replies, “It would be worse if you had kids. They start off breakable.” “It’s okay if your girlfriend is beautiful,” Shelby tells her ex. “I want you to be happy.” “Really?” he replies. “You never did before.”
Whenever these characters act, we are completely with them. Shelby in the dead of night, wielding a pair of wire-cutters to free an abused Great Pyrenees dog who may or may not attack her. Shelby’s mother secretly cleaning her daughter’s self-imposed basement prison while she sleeps. Even the settings in which the characters act come alive. “The night is inky, but through the dusk the forsythia in the yard glows with a deep, yellow light.” “Dusk is sifting down when the blue Toyota pulls up.”
Whenever Hoffman fully employs her gift for dramatizing — when the story is the meaning — “Faithful” becomes a book we can live inside, engaging and vivid. The novel is less compelling when insights are spelled out, either by the characters or in Shelby’s thoughts. “But what does it mean when a man won’t leave his wife. Is he loyal or disloyal?” “She wishes he would . . . explain how it’s possible to love someone so much and still manage to carry on when you have to let them go.” Sound-bite moments such as these make this book feel like a young adult novel. The shimmering complexity of Shelby’s journey is slighted. In the end, though, “Faithful” draws its various characters together in a satisfying, well-earned close.
By Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster, 258 pp., $26Ann Harleman is completing her eighth book, “Tell Me, Signora,” a novel set in Italy. She can be reached at www.annharleman.com.