From the New York Times bestselling author of The Marriage of Opposites and The Dovekeepers comes a soul-searching story about a young woman struggling to redefine herself and the power of love, family, and fate.
Growing up on Long Island, Shelby Richmond is an ordinary girl until one night an extraordinary tragedy changes her fate. Her best friend’s future is destroyed in an accident, while Shelby walks away with the burden of guilt.
What happens when a life is turned inside out? When love is something so distant it may as well be a star in the sky? Faithful is the story of a survivor, filled with emotion—from dark suffering to true happiness—a moving portrait of a young woman finding her way in the modern world. A fan of Chinese food, dogs, bookstores, and men she should stay away from, Shelby has to fight her way back to her own future. In New York City she finds a circle of lost and found souls—including an angel who’s been watching over her ever since that fateful icy night.
Here is a character you will fall in love with, so believable and real and endearing, that she captures both the ache of loneliness and the joy of finding yourself at last. For anyone who’s ever been a hurt teenager, for every mother of a daughter who has lost her way, Faithful is a roadmap.
Alice Hoffman’s “trademark alchemy” (USA TODAY) and her ability to write about the “delicate balance between the everyday world and the extraordinary” (WBUR) make this an unforgettable story. With beautifully crafted prose, Alice Hoffman spins hope from heartbreak in this profoundly moving novel.
This reading group guide for Faithful includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Alice Hoffman. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In this profoundly moving novel, bestselling author Alice Hoffman introduces a tale of redemption, survivor’s guilt, and the power of love, family, and fate.
After surviving a traumatic car accident that takes the life of her best friend Helene, Shelby Richmond finds herself wayward, lost, and alone. In the years following Helene’s death, Shelby takes up relationships with less than savory men, turns to drugs as a way to escape, and loses all self-love. But through the angels around her—their faith, hope, and support—Shelby finally discovers her calling and sets forth on a path toward a better life.
Faithful is a novel about the burden of guilt, the power of humanity, and resilience—with a character who will resonate with anyone who has ever lost a loved one or lost their way.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. As a group, listen to Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem.” After you’ve completed the song, discuss why Alice Hoffman opened Faithful with the following lyrics: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” How do you think this connects to the novel? To Shelby?
2. Love manifests in a few strong ways: the love between a mother and daughter (Shelby and Sue, Maravelle and Jasmine); the love between partners (Ben and Shelby; Sue and Dan); friendship (Shelby and Maravelle). Which love brings the characters the most faith or hope? Is there a sort of love in the novel that you find destructive to the characters?
3. Discuss the title, Faithful. In which ways do the characters show their faith? How does this faith differentiate from religious faith? At what point do you think Shelby finally begins to have faith and hope again? Is there another title you and your group members would have selected for the novel?
4. Over the course of the novel, Shelby rescues three dogs, a cat, and steals a poodle for her mother. Discuss the different caretakers that appear in the novel. What compels Shelby to save these animals? What compels Ben to care for Shelby? Shelby for Maravelle?
5. Discuss Shelby’s relationship with Ben. In what ways is this relationship a healthy next step for Shelby? Do you think he has a positive or negative affect on her life? Why or why not?
6. While browsing books in the Strand Book Store, a young boy says to Shelby, “That’s why the best heroes used to be villains and vice versa” (page 222). Consider this quote in relation to Shelby’s survivor’s guilt and redemption by the end of the novel. Does she forgive herself for Helene’s death? Why or why not?
7. In the first chapter, Shelby says, “I believe in tragedy . . . not miracles” (page 11). Does her opinion change by the novel’s end? What miracles does she experience?
8. The theme of trust is prevalent in Faithful. Discuss the characters who struggle most with trust. Consider the level of trust Maravelle puts in Shelby to watch her kids, Shelby’s father’s infidelity, Shelby’s lack of self-trust, and others who appear in the novel. Where does the lack of trust or ability to trust stem from for the various characters in the novel?
9. On page 201, James says to Shelby, “What they say about saving a life is true . . . You’re responsible for that person forever.” Discuss what James means here and the different ways Shelby’s, or another character’s, life is saved in Faithful. Do you agree with James? Why or why not?
10. To further the question above, discuss Shelby’s visit with Helene toward the novel’s end. What “miracle” do you think she experiences during the visit? What kept her away for so long?
11. As a group, compare the various sayings on all the postcards James left for Shelby throughout the years, as well as when they appear in Shelby’s life. What would your reaction be to these notes? Do you think James knew where Shelby was, both physically and mentally, at the time he was writing them?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Consider volunteering as a group at a local animal shelter or ASPCA. After spending time with the animals and helping around the shelter, ask the staff about the animals’ stories. Discuss as a group whether you would feel compelled to rescue animals off the street the way Shelby did.
2. Consider reading one of Alice Hoffman’s historical novels in contrast to this novel or her memoir, Survival Lessons. What do these works have in common? Can you trace any similar themes in their plots or lessons the characters learn by the end of the novels?
3. Connect with Alice Hoffman on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or her website. Create a hashtag for your book club and tag her in the photos you upload of your group’s reactions to the work.
4. Spend an afternoon making fortune cookies and the enclosed fortunes as a group. Discuss some of your favorite fortunes you’ve ever found and come up with some fortunes you think Shelby may have responded to positively.
5. Consider reading Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man as your next book club pick. Discuss how the novel speaks to Shelby, Ben, and James in Faithful.
A Conversation with Alice Hoffman
You start the novel with a lyric from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” Why did you decide to start the novel with these lyrics?
I am a huge fan of Leonard Cohen's music and poetry, and I think Shelby would be also. The lyric speaks to the idea that what is broken in us is also what makes us human and what defines us. So often we are ashamed of what we see as our flaws, our past histories, our sorrows, but these are what give us compassion and wisdom. Nothing is whole, nothing is perfect, and we can’t expect that of ourselves or of anyone else.
Many of your novels are deeply rooted in history. Faithful, however, is set in contemporary New York City. What research, if any, did you need to do to feel satisfied with Faithful? Do you find the process of writing contemporary fiction different from writing historical fiction?
Writing a historical novel is a huge undertaking in terms of research, but all novels require emotional investigation. Faithful happened to take ten years to write—I wrote between writing other novels—and so I really got to know Shelby in a deep way. I lived with her for a long time.
When you’ve finished writing a book, do you ever wish you could revisit a character you’ve focused on? Do you think your characters reappear in any novels? Do you think you’ll consider writing a sequel to Faithful or do you think Shelby’s story is complete for readers?
I always feel that when a novel ends, the future of the characters belong to the reader. Because the reader and writer share the novel, we all experience it in our imaginations. I have written a sequel to a novel called Green Angel, and enjoyed it. But for me, Shelby’s story ends on the last page of the novel. The rest is up to the reader.
You were born in New York City and grew up on Long Island. Did you spend time in New York City as a twentysomething like Shelby did? Is her hometown similar to yours?
I grew up in Valley Stream, where Maravelle buys her house, and spent much of my twenties in Chelsea in New York City, where Shelby lives with Ben and later by herself. Many of the places Shelby loves are places I love—Strand Book Store, the Half King, Union Square, the Hudson River. I wanted her to be in real places and to give her a map that I knew well.
Can you tell us what you’re working on now and what readers can look for next?
I’m at work on a prequel to my novel Practical Magic. The Rules of Magic is set in New York City in the sixties and tells the story of the aunts, Frances and Jet, when they were young. It’s great to be writing about the Owens family again and to see another side of these characters that I loved.
Alice Hoffman is the author of more than thirty works of fiction, including The World That We Knew, The Rules of Magic, The Marriage of Opposites, Practical Magic, The Red Garden, the Oprah’s Book Club selection Here on Earth, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, and The Dovekeepers. She lives near Boston.