(This is more of a book response than a review. You've been warned, it gets a little bit dramatic.)
It’s always strange to me how different parts of books impact different readers. Take Alice Hoffman’s newest novel, Faithful. It tells the story of Shelby Richmond, who is growing up on Long Island with her best friend Helene. All is normal adolescence until, on a cold night in February when Shelby is driving, the girls hit an icy patch and get in a wreck. Shelby is barely injured, but Helene barely survives; she ends up in a coma, being taken care of at home by her parents and thought of as a local miracle. If you touch Helene, the idea goes, she will be able to heal you, make your dilemmas turn around, or somehow save you.
Shelby is completely undone by her experience. She spends some time in a psychiatric facility and more time—months, in fact—just living in her parents’ basement, smoking weed and unable to move forward. Why, she wonders, should she get to have a normal life when her best friend does not? A sort-of relationship with the boy she buys her pot from eventually helps her start living again. They move to New York City and she finds a job at a pet store, which sets her moving forward.
Hoffman’s novels are usually in the “magical realism” genre (except for her newest historical novels). This one felt far more real than magical, and I kind of missed the magic. There is some almost-magic in the notes that someone leaves her, and the timing of when she receives them, but as the story goes, the writer is revealed. Without that little magic sparkle, the story felt the tiniest bit flat, but likely that is because I expected what Hoffman usually includes.
This isn’t a book with a dramatic denouement. Instead, as with life, Shelby takes a gradual path in her healing. I think what I will remember the most is reading this so soon after our trip to New York. It was—is thrilling too strong a word?—to read about a place in a novel and not just imagine it but picture it.
But what I will never forget is how it made me feel about my mom.
I carry quite a bit of guilt around with me about what my mom calls “Amy’s black years.” For nearly three years of my adolescence, I was a complete mess. Pretty much every bad thing a teenager could do, I did. Now that I have teenagers, I can finally imagine how my mom must’ve felt during those years. Her quiet, ambitious, fairly-normal daughter all of a sudden exploded and was replaced with a wild, angry, rebellious goth girl.
So as I read Faithful, the character I resonated with the most was Shelby’s mom. We’re never inside of her head…but I have empathy for her. It is terrifying and painful to be unable to help our children when they are stuck in darkness. There is only so much we can do, as mothers, and a large part of it is that we can never stop telling them we love them.
There is always a resonance with how mothers and daughters hurt each other.
In one scene of the book, Shelby thinks about her mother’s death, and how she felt blessed that she had the chance to tell her “thank you” before she died.
It made me think about what I should tell my own mom I am grateful to her for. But “thank you” feels impossible without first saying “I’m sorry.” I’m sorry I did all of those wrong things. I’m sorry I made you worry. I’m sorry I quit gymnastics and disappointed you. I’m sorry I didn’t let you see your first grandson grow up. I’m sorry for all of the pain I caused.
Seriously…I was reading this scene in the bathtub. I set the book down, put my head on my knees, and wept. Thinking about all those days I made unhappy for her.
But I also found myself realizing something, perhaps because as I read this book, my own son was also struggling with his own dark place and time. Still is struggling. I thought of what I looked like from the outside when I was in his shoes, finishing my first semester of college. I looked like a failure, a person who would never amount to anything. But you know who never gave up on me?
If she ever despaired at my future, she never showed me. She encouraged me, she reminded me that I had value. Perhaps she even was able to take a breath and let me flounder. I don’t think she saved me. I think I had to save myself, but she did always give me a safe place, and in that way, yes: she helped save me.
Some books come into your life at exactly the time you need them, I think. That moment of reading in the bathtub led me to a little piece of knowledge from my past that I could use to help my son in the present.
Isn’t that strange?
I love books.