One icy night, seventeen-year-old Shelby Richmond is driving her best friend Helene Boyd to a party and skids off the road. Before the police arrive, a passer-by finds Shelby and encourages her: stay with me, Shelby. Shelby does survive the crash. But Helene survives only physically, tied to a respirator, comatose for the rest of her life. The knowledge that she has effectively ended Helene’s life becomes the essential core of Shelby’s self definition, and survivor guilt haunts every minute of her life. Not every minute of the narrative itself, though. What Hoffman, a prolific and popular novelist, does in this book is write from the point of view of a damaged person without constantly mentioning the damage. Readers who have learned with surprise that the self-deprecating hero of David Copperfield has somehow become a successful writer, or that retiring Ester Summerson of Bleak House is actually the most perceptive person in the book, will recognize the Dickensian technique.
It’s the technique that’s interesting in this book. Writing in the third person and the present tense, Hoffman chronicles Shelby’s gradual emergence from the basement of her parents’ Long Island house, her move to New York with Ben, the drug-dealer who becomes her lover, her job at a pet store (in which, we learn to our surprise, she performs so well that she is asked to be manager). We know she’s shaved her head in penance and dresses in black – but we learn almost by-the-by that she becomes friends with Maravelle, the single mom of three difficult but loveable teenagers. We see her rescue a series of abused street dogs, only to mistreat Ben, her long-suffering partner, and ignore her deeply concerned, supportive mother. (On the side, we learn that she has obtained a college degree). We watch her feel she deserves nothing but pain – and so it’s a big step forward when she’s furious to find that the veterinarian who she considers the love of her life has not only a pregnant wife but a girl for each day of the week. (On the side, we learn that she has applied to veterinarian school and been accepted.) The narrative, often funny, continually influenced by the smart-aleck voice that Shelby can’t repress, follows a woman who finds her way back to her devoted mother, finds the love of a fellow sufferer from survivor guilt and, in a fine scene near the novel’s conclusion, visits Helene’s family six years after the accident and finds them frozen in the defining moment she has left behind.
This is an uneven book. At its best, it manages to overcome the limitations of its Teen Survivor genre with its excellent portrayal of Long Island and New York City, its tales of Shelby’s adopted dogs, its portrait of Shelby’s anguished, supportive mother, and its concluding scene between Shelby and Helen’s father. At its weakest, its emphasis on the unexpected miracles of love (compared with the ‘miracles’ that Helene is said to perform in her comatose state) approaches didacticism and sentimentality. Throughout, however, readers are aware that they are in the hands of a very competent professional writer who is brave enough to use a narrative technique that few contemporary novelists would even think of trying.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.