The best years of your life.

That’s what people tell you about high school. Remember those days, they say. They’ll be the best of your life. But zits, mean girls, broken dreams, and broken friends aren’t exactly best. Sometimes in high school, as in the new book “Faithful” by Alice Hoffman, the very worst things can happen.

Nobody thought it was anything but an accident.

The road was icy that night. Shelby Richmond was driving and she wasn’t speeding. She never was sure why her best friend, Helene, sitting in the passenger’s seat, didn’t buckle up like she usually did. Parts of the night remained sketchy, but the thing Shelby knew was that the car spun out of control and Helene was left in a coma.

Seventeen years old. Helene had a lifetime left, but she’d never live it. Instead, she lay in her childhood bedroom, tended by volunteers, visited by people who believed her capable of bestowing miracles.

Seventeen years old. Shelby believed that she, not Helene, should be in the coma.

She cut her hair completely off. Buzz-cut, in fact, and she stopped eating. All Shelby wanted was to smoke weed and sleep while her mother flitted upstairs in their home and her father disappeared as often as he could. Her only friend, if you could call him that, was Ben, her dealer. And it was Ben she moved to New York with, after they graduated – a graduation Helene would never have.

In New York, Shelby got a job and discovered that she liked animals. She worked her way up to manager of a pet store. Someone said she was pretty, so she grew her hair again, and she made a best friend. And Ben loved her, but she couldn’t love him back. Shelby didn’t deserve Ben. She wasn’t lovable.

But was that true? Her dogs certainly adored her. Her mother never stopped loving her, fiercely. Her father tried (or so he said). And then there was the stranger who’d been sending postcards to Shelby ever since the accident… weren’t inspirational, anonymous notes some form of caring?

In a small way, “Faithful” defies categorizing.

Its plot is minimal: it’s a story arc roughly set in a ten-year period of one woman’s rather unremarkable life. Granted, not everybody does what author Alice Hoffman lets her character do, but what happened to Shelby, happens to others.

And yet, this story is singular. And it’s impossible to stop reading.

There’s a crispness in this novel that doesn’t become too harsh; instead, it’s comfortable, like an old yearbook. After a few pages, in fact, it’s almost as if we went to school with Shelby, or avoided her on the playground. We know her – and when Hoffman puts her in unique (yet not outlandish) situations, Shelby’s actions are satisfyingly right.

Come to think of it, so is this whole book.

Mark it down; it should be your next Book Group pick. It should be on your bedside table. If you love novels, “Faithful” may be your best book this year.

Short Takes

How about a little history for your wintertime reading?

“Ghostland” by Colin Dickey might seem like more of a Halloween read, but it’s really not. In this book, you’ll read about hauntings, yes, but you’ll also find out why they’re significant, historically speaking. Dickey goes where few dare to tread: inside haunted bedrooms, eerie mansions, sacred grounds, and places where ghosts supposedly appear. That’s fun, and because he weaves so much more than just a ghost story in his chapters, it’s fascinating, too, but never fear: Dickey’s not sensational or silly, and he’s quick to debunk that which is simply untrue.

For something a little deeper, try “Nixon’s Gamble” by Ray Locker, a book about the chances Richard Nixon took to leave a legacy. Says Locker, Richard Nixon did something so audacious that it seems impossible now and because of it, his touch can still be seen in modern politics and policy. It all had to happen a certain way, and RMN was determined that it would – even if leaving a legacy left out key players in his administration. Jaw-dropping and frightening in its own way, and nowhere near a light, breezy book, this is still too fascinating to miss.

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