FAITHFUL. By Alice Hoffman. Simon & Schuster. 255 pages. $26.
THE WONDER. By Emma Donoghue. Little, Brown and Company. 291 pages. $27.
What makes a miracle? Is it Jesus walking on water or Moses parting the Red Sea? Or are miracles more tangible like when Captain Sully landed his plane on the Hudson River and saved all his passengers?
New York Times Bestselling authors Alice Hoffman and Emma Donoghue probe the concept of miracles in their latest novels, “Faithful” and “The Wonder.” In each book, the source of these miracles is young women whose lives are in danger. One is in a coma; the other is nearly dead.
In “Faithful,” high school senior Shelby Richmond was driving with her best friend Helene when her car slid on the ice and crashed. Shelby survived with minor injuries while Helene ended up on life support. The first half of the book follows Shelby from the psychiatric ward to her parent’s basement where she wallows in a thick fog of depression. All she wants to do is sleep and get high. She shaves off her hair and is “completely shocked by her own appearance. She looks like the kind of girl people back away from on the street, someone who begs for spare change while she curses the world.”
Shelby starts dating her drug dealer, a former classmate who has been in love with her for years. They leave Long Island and move to the city where she slowly climbs out of her darkness. She finds a job at a pet store and fills their small apartment with abandoned pets.
While Shelby gains strength in the city, Helene remains in a coma in the bedroom of her parent’s home on Long Island where people travel across the country to visit her. They’ve heard the stories of drug addicts who visited Helene and “never touched the stuff again,” or women who couldn’t get pregnant until they sat with Helene. They light candles, leave flowers and wait in long lines outside Helene’s bedroom for the chance at a miracle.
Hoffman is the author of more than 30 novels for adults and young adults. She’s a skilled storyteller who is capable of transporting readers to places where magic and miracles exist. She weaves the fantastical into her stories in credible ways. In her latest novel, Hoffman employs the formula of crisis, journey and resolution. She drags us through Shelby’s suffering with the promise of a reward. Unfortunately, the promise is so obvious we are impatient with the journey.
Anna O'Donnell, an 11-year-old Irish girl, is the miracle in “The Wonder.” She’s refused food for months, and everyone around her believes she is being kept alive by “manna from heaven.”
The story is set in 1859, a few years after the potato famine that killed more than a million people, in a village that is described as bleak and wet. Like Helene, Anna is visited daily by a stream of hopefuls who wait in line for the chance of a miracle. The townspeople are devout Roman Catholics who suspect the girl to be a saint, and they decide to form a committee to prove this is not a hoax.
This is rain-soaked country where most families are desperately poor. The idea that a saint lives among them, a saint who can survive without the food they all so desperately need, is both ironic and heartbreaking. The committee recruits Lib, who trained under Florence Nightingale, as well as a local Catholic nun, to keep watch over the girl.
Donoghue is best known for her novel “Room,” which tells the story of a young mother and son held captive in a shed for years. “Room” is narrated by a 5-year-old boy whose voice is curious and engaging, while “The Wonder” is narrated by a headstrong, no-nonsense nurse. Lib is opinionated and spends most of the book complaining about the conditions. The Irish are “shiftless, thriftless, hopeless, hapless, always brooding over past wrongs.”
She’s suspicious and determined to uncover a hoax In so doing, she makes enemies of everyone in Anna’s family, except for Anna. The girl’s charms gradually warm Lib’s heart, and some of the best scenes are of intimate conversations between Anna and Lib about religion and science. Anna is wrapped in a bubble of her faith which frustrates Lib who believes that “science is the most magical force.”
“Faithful” and “The Wonder” aren’t among their authors’ best work, but they do express the human desire to believe in the impossible. These tragic stories of young women who tread dangerously close to the edge illustrates that desire to believe in miracles.
Reviewer Amy Mercer is a freelance writer in Charleston.