Hoffman takes a break from writing about distant places and the distant past (Marriage of Opposites, 2015, etc.) to explore the psyche of a young Long Island woman afflicted by survivor guilt.
In her own mind, Shelby Richmond stole her best friend’s future. Two years have passed since the car accident that left Helene tethered to a feeding tube in her childhood bedroom just before she should have graduated from high school, a mute but lovely shadow of her former badass self, a magnet for pilgrims hoping to be cured by touching her hand. This cringeworthy spectacle sometimes causes Shelby to ponder whether it's better or worse that her friend lived. Mainly, though, Shelby focuses on enacting her own penance for being physically and cognitively intact (the jury’s out on emotionally): by shaving her head, sleeping like Dracula in her parents’ basement, skipping college, and sometimes cutting herself in places she thinks won’t be detected. Miserable as things are for Shelby, Hoffman provides readers as well as her deeply wounded heroine some quirky human anchors to make her journey back to higher functionality more than bearable, even entertaining: e.g., an anonymous Samaritan, apparently male, who sends her hand-drawn postcards bearing get-well messages in the form of visual and verbal riddles. And there's black-humored levity in Shelby’s snarky exchanges with Ben Mink—her marijuana source who's grown from high school geek to handsome striver and brings her Ray Bradbury books to read. “I believe in tragedy,” she tells him apropos of Helene’s faithful flock. “Not miracles.” Though bald and self-medicating, she grasps that moving in with Ben while he attends pharmacy grad school (!!!) at NYU might be a better direction. While shacking up with Ben, she finds a job cleaning cages at a gritty pet store. The silver lining is her co-worker Maravelle, a single mom of three young kids, whose lack of self-pity over her bad luck with men ("See a charmer and you're bound to see a snake nearby") attracts Shelby. Perhaps there’s a way these two bruised women can help each other? Ultimately, though, it’s Sue Richmond, Shelby’s mom, who proves to be the real saint of the narrative—her unobtrusive shaping of Shelby’s better instincts is one of the most touching aspects of the book. With Hoffman, it’s a safe bet deus ex machina or mild enchantment is going to enter the plot. By the time it does, however, Shelby’s well on her way to recalibrating. She couldn’t save her friend, but Hoffman endows her with the inner weather to save herself.
A novel full of people—flawed, scarred, scared—discovering how to punish themselves less and connect with others more.