The Faithful, Alice Hoffman, author; Amber Tamblyn, narrator
Part of this novel was based on previously published short stories about Shelby Richmond, the main character, and her best friend Helene Boyd, who sustains a traumatic injury in a car crash. Helene was left in a permanent coma state. Shelby was the driver of the car who was convinced to go out that snowy night by Helene who was hurt and angry because her boyfriend had broken up with her that day. He did not want to go away to college with the responsibility of a girlfriend.
While heroic tales rise up about Helene’s ability to cure the sick with her very presence, and candlelight vigils with candles that burn longer than they should, Shelby is whispered about as the girl who drove the car and caused this grievous injury to her best friend, ruining her life. Her guilt consumes her. Shelby never goes to see Helene again after the accident. Instead, she slides down into a state of complete depression; she shaves her head and even attempts suicide. Although Shelby’s home life is nothing to write home, about, because her parents are not happy together, and her father is disloyal, her mother is totally devoted to her and always believes in her ability to achieve a successful life and overcome the effects of the tragedy that has had so devastating an effect on both girls at the tender age of seventeen. By some, one is branded as a savior and one as a villain, but for all intents and purposes, both of the girl’s lives were ruined.
Helene was the beauty and more of a risk taker of the two friends. She was often a bad influence on Shelby. She was the stronger of the pair and held sway over Shelby’s decisions, usually getting her way. Shelby was pretty, but not as pretty as Helene, and of the pair, she was more of a student. She was the more cautious of the two, as well, until that fateful night when Helene convinced her, against her better judgment, to drive her over to her boyfriend’s house to make mischief. Both teenagers had engaged in some bad behavior, like buying and smoking pot in secret; Helene used to sneak beer and boys into Shelby’s basement, and they would hang out there. Still, both had been achievers and were accepted to NYU. They were eagerly looking forward to attending college after their approaching high school graduation. When it became impossible for Helene to go, Shelby also refused; actually, she refused to leave the house and remained in the basement, silent as a mute.
The night of the accident, someone Shelby thought of as an angel came to her and comforted her, encouraging her to live. He told her that Helene was beyond his help. That night, Shelby lost a butterfly bracelet that each of them had worn as a symbol of their friendship. She never found it, although she went back to search after she recovered. Soon after the accident, postcards began to arrive regularly, at her home, for the next several years. Each had a simple two word inspirational message intended for her. The first to arrive said “do something” and the last said “trust me”. Some included tiny likenesses of her on the card. She had no idea who was sending them. Although her mom did see a large male place the card in the mailbox on some occasions, she could not identify him. The postcards reassured Shelby that at least someone out there understood what she was going through.
Soon, Shelby began to venture outside. She became friends with another outcast, not too affectionately known, also, as Ben Stink. He was a nerd and her pot supplier. Together, both began the long journey back to living in the real world. How her journey plays out is the subject of this book that is about guilt and redemption, sin and forgiveness, disappointment and happiness, love and hate, infidelity and promiscuity. It is about falling and rising back up, about succeeding against all odds, about changing, and in so doing, overcoming adversity.
The foreshadowing is pretty obvious and there are few surprises in the book. The reader watches Shelby grow from a girl who is totally unable to interact in the world to a girl who accepts low level jobs proving her ability to do far more, a girl who has a big heart and discovers herself slowly as she begins to recognize her own shortcomings and faults and to welcome and understand her own attributes as she finds she is capable of rising to the occasion each time a problem confronts her. Her behavior is not stellar, though. She steals and lies with abandon, she sleeps with a married man, naively believing he will leave his wife, she takes advantage of her friend Ben, but on the other side, she cares for those less fortunate, animal and human. The reader will watch Shelby grow. Even her ability to influence others changes, as she learns to care more and more about life and people, animals and friends; as she grows into a more positive human being, her life takes a brilliantly positive turn. She discovers things she never knew she could feel or accomplish.
Many of the characters are shown to have two sides. Those who fall and have the courage to rise up are able to succeed. Those who allow their fear and anger to consume them stay in the gutter. Those who feel worthless and never discover what is worthwhile about themselves are doomed, those who are able to express regret and reform are able to find their own value. There are a lot of philosophical messages in the book which make it a very good book club choice. What does the title mean? Who is faithful? Are they faithful to a behavior, a person, a way of life? It is a quick and easy read, but not rocket science.