One snowy night, in their senior year of high school, best friends Shelby and Helene are involved in a terrible car accident. Shelby escapes physically unscathed and emotionally scarred, but Helene’s injuries have put her into a permanent vegetative state. Helene’s parents keep her in her bedroom and word spreads far and wide of Helene’s supposed “healing” powers. As a line of faithful followers forms outside of Helene’s house every day, Shelby is admitted to an inpatient psychiatric ward where she falls deeper into depression and self-destructive behaviors.
some spoilers below.
I loved Hoffman’s Seventh Heaven and was unimpressed with The Museum of Extraordinary Things, so I was really hoping that I would enjoy this book. I was so excited to see this available as a “Read Now” on Netgalley, but it’s been more than six months since I downloaded my copy. I’ve finally read it, and I don’t really know what to think. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it, either. I really just didn’t see the point.
As always, Hoffman’s writing is beautiful. Unfortunately, beautiful writing doesn’t stand in for the absence of plot. Although this book follows Shelby for a good decade or so of her life, very little actually happens.
At the outset of the book, and I want to mention this because I am quite sure it will turn off some readers, Shelby is regularly raped by one of the orderlies in the inpatient psych ward. This understandably undoes any progress that she might have made while hospitalized, and it carries over to how she views relationships for the next several years.
Out of the program, Shelby shaves her head and wears shapeless black clothes and combat boots that she knows make her look unattractive and scary. She’s trying to look bad because she doesn’t deserve to look good. Her best friend is in a coma because of her, and why should she be enjoying her life when Helene can’t?
Shelby abandons all hope for a good life. Although she’d been accepted to NYU, she never moves into her dorm. She moves down to her parents’ basement, where she sleeps on the couch and smokes a lot of weed. Her only semi-meaningful relationship is with her dealer, Ben, who she eventually begins dating. Shelby doesn’t actually like Ben, but she feels that she doesn’t deserve to be in love because Helene is in a coma. Eventually, Shelby and Ben move to New York City together.
Shelby is awful to Ben. She feels that he deserves better than her, and maybe if she yells enough, if she’s crazy enough, if she treats him poorly enough, he’ll leave. But Ben loves Shelby, and it’s not until she cheats on him with a handsome, charismatic veterinarian that he snaps. It’s not even the cheating that bothers Ben, it’s the fact that Shelby is going to leave him for this smarmy doctor. When things don’t work out with the vet, Shelby realizes what a good person Ben was. At this point, it’s too late. Ben wants nothing to do with her.
At some point, Shelby realizes that she needs to get a job. She begins stocking shelves at a pet store, a dead-end job she picked so that she wouldn’t have to talk to people. Shelby is quickly promoted to manager for no real reason and becomes best friends with one of her coworkers. Although Shelby is a self-professed child-hater, her coworker tells Shelby that she will be babysitting her three children for several days while she goes out of town. (Why you would leave your three children with someone who doesn’t know the first thing about kids and admittedly hates them is beyond me, but this made for a really good couple chapters.) It turns out that Shelby is amazing with children. She knows exactly what to say to all of them so that they will become better versions of themselves. She calms fears and tames wild teenagers, all while letting them eat forbidden food and stay up past their bedtimes.
While working at the pet store, Shelby also learns that she loves animals. I guess she didn’t know this before. When she sees an animal being mistreated, she liberates it from its current owner and takes it home with her. By the end of the book, she has a motley crew of four dogs, ranging from a teacup poodle to a Great Pyrenees. Shelby is amazing with these dogs and can turn the worst-behaved animal into an angel almost instantly. I’m glad that she saved these dogs because I, too, have a very big soft spot for animals, but I don’t know how she kept getting away with stealing them!
Shelby also goes to college at some point, where she’s admitted without much effort on her part. I suppose it’s possible that her old SAT scores and high school grades helped, but it seems like it should have taken a bit more work given that she hadn’t been in school for so long. Of course, Shelby turns out to be absolutely brilliant and she gets great grades without even trying. Shelby is so brilliant that the state of New York actually pays her to go to school. Everything comes naturally to her and she ends up applying to (and being accepted at) UC-Davis for vet school. As the book ends, Shelby moves to California with the love of her life as Ben begs her to take him back.
I guess I didn’t really understand the point to this book. Shelby tries so hard to have a horrible life, but good things just keep happening to her. She tries to have a terrible, low-paying job and is promoted to manager. She tries not to have any friends, but good people insert themselves into her life. She tries to hate children, but ends up playing the part of the cool aunt. She tries not to succeed and ends up with a pretty perfect life. I was happy for her, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t understand what the reasoning for all of this was.
The book is very emotional, and I often wanted to cry while reading it. But, as I’ve said with other books like this, what’s the point in making me cry? You haven’t made me realize anything new. You haven’t made me see things from a new perspective. You haven’t shed light on any underrepresented topics. You just want me to cry. Congratulations, chunks of this book felt like punches to the chest. But why?
Now, this book has a fairly high average rating on Goodreads. It’s a book that many thousands of people have absolutely loved. Personally, it didn’t do it for me, but please don’t let that stop you from reading it.
Final rating: ★★★☆☆
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the ARC!
#mmdreading: a book you were excited to buy or borrow but haven’t read yet