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The Believers: A Novelby Zoe Heller
Synopses & Reviews
When radical New York lawyer Joel Litvinoff is felled by a stroke, his wife, Audrey, uncovers a secret that forces her to reexamine everything she thought she knew about their forty-year marriage. Joel's children will soon have to come to terms with this discovery themselves, but for the meantime, they are struggling with their own dilemmas and doubts.
Rosa, a disillusioned revolutionary, has found herself drawn into the world of Orthodox Judaism and is now being pressed to make a commitment to that religion. Karla, a devoted social worker hoping to adopt a child with her husband, is falling in love with the owner of a newspaper stand outside her office. Neer-do-well Lenny is living at home, approaching another relapse into heroin addiction.
In the course of battling their own demons — and one another — the Litvinoff clan is called upon to examine long-held articles of faith that have formed the basis of their lives together and their identities as individuals. In the end, all the family members will have to answer their own questions and decide what — if anything — they still believe in.
Hailed by the Sunday Times (London) as "one of the outstanding novels of the year," The Believers explores big ideas with a light touch, delivering a tragic, comic family story as unsparing as it is filled with compassion.
"Heller (What Was She Thinking?; Notes on a Scandal) puts to pointed use her acute observations of human nature in her third novel, a satire of 1960s idealism soured in the early 21st century. Audrey and Joel Litvinoff have attempted to pass on to their children their lefty passions — despite Audrey's decidedly bourgeois attitude and attorney Joel's self-satisfied heroism, including the defense of a suspected terrorist in 2002 New York City. When Joel has a stroke and falls into a coma, Audrey grows increasingly nasty as his secrets surface. The children, meanwhile, wander off on their own adventures: Rosa's inherited principles are beleaguered by the unpleasant realities of her work with troubled adolescents; Karla, her self-image crushed by Audrey, has settled into an uncomfortable marriage and the accompanying pressure to have children; and adopted Lenny, the best metaphor for the family's troubles, dawdles along as a drug addict and master manipulator. Though some may be initially put off by the characters' coldness — the Litvinoffs are a severely screwed-up crew — readers with a certain mindset will have a blast watching things get worse." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
With her arcing wit and searing characters, Zoe Heller is quickly becoming one of the sharpest novelists in America. And we only have her on long-term loan from England. (Born in London, she now lives in New York and writes for the London Daily Telegraph.) Her previous novel, "What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal," was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003 and sits comfortably next to the... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) best books about sinister high-school teachers. (Why, by the way, is the shelf of those books so alarmingly long?) Now Heller turns from sexual intrigue to a more dangerous subject: religion. God knows, it's long been safe to write literary fiction about faith as long as someone's losing it. But, lo and behold, embedded in the middle of this astute family comedy is the story of a young woman going through the humiliating process of losing her atheism. In fact, all the memorable women in "The Believers" must suffer the revelation that what they thought they knew is dead wrong. Don't grow too attached to the dashing lawyer introduced in the preface. A high-profile liberal lion, Joel Litvinoff suffers a massive stroke in the first chapter while defending an al-Qaeda terrorist and spends the rest of the novel lying in a hospital bed. Jesse Jackson, Judy Collins and other celebrities drop by with well wishes, but what interests Heller — and us — is the family members left spinning around Joel's unconscious body, struggling to make their way in the world without him. Chief among these characters is Audrey, his devoted wife of 40 years, a strident supporter of left-wing causes and a hilariously abrasive woman. She prides herself on her "audacious honesty, her willingness to express what everyone else was thinking," Heller writes, though "it was not the truth of her observations that made people laugh, but their unfairness, their surreal cruelty." Indeed, if you need to like the characters to enjoy a novel, skip right on to something more heartwarming because Heller is the master of unpleasant people. It's a testament to her respect for the full spectrum of human nature that her fiercely drawn characters endure satiric exposure that would burn weaker ones to a crisp. Audrey rages on throughout "The Believers," attacking the hospital staff, bullying her grown children and treating her close friends with condescension or derision. Only the sudden appearance of Joel's most recent mistress — an annoyingly calm, New Agey black woman — manages to rattle her ferocious confidence. "How had she ended up like this," Audrey wonders in one of the novel's most poignant moments, "imprisoned in the role of harridan?" Woven through this story are two largely separate stories involving Audrey's adult daughters. Poor Karla is the opposite of her mother: a lumpy, gentle woman with a crippled self-image, a desperate desire to please, a reflexive impulse to apologize. Heller describes her marriage to a pompous union organizer with cringe-inducing precision, particularly "their terse bedroom encounters," which may be the most dispiriting sex scenes ever written. One night Karla catches a glimpse of her husband's expression in bed: "equal parts repulsion and resignation — a sort of stoic anguish, like a child squaring up to the task of eating his spinach." The only pleasure in her obedient life is her affair with a quirky Egyptian who runs a convenience shop at the hospital. It's the sort of life-giving act of adultery you can't help cheering on, but is Karla willing to give up everything and imagine herself happy? The real heart of the novel belongs to Audrey's younger daughter, Rosa, a lonely, sharp-tongued woman casting about desperately for something to believe in, something to replace the comforting self-righteousness of her family's revolutionary zeal. Disillusioned by socialism after four years in Cuba, Rosa shocks her parents when she announces that she's begun attending an Orthodox synagogue. It's an affront to secular Jews who have long prided themselves on their complete freedom from "the idiocy of faith." (Her father always sent back friends' bar mitzvah invitations with the words "There is no God" scrawled across them.) Her mother claims she's just playing "Queen of the Matzoh" to get attention, but Rosa's attraction to Judaism is fraught with doubts and objections — intellectual, political and aesthetic — articulated in Heller's snortingly funny put-downs. Even while studying with an Orthodox rabbi, Rosa is embarrassed to be "consorting in broad daylight with such ostentatiously Jewish Jews." She thinks the synagogue is decorated with "the dowdy, third-rate quality of dentist art." The women at the mikvah seem guided by "schoolgirlish masochism, some hysterical need for rules and restrictions." Rosa thinks that "the idea of an educated, metropolitan woman voluntarily casting off every vestige of modernity in order to make herself over as a medieval ghetto-dweller was unconscionable." Nonetheless, while she listens to the austere melody of the congregation, "a thought came to her," Heller writes, "as clearly as if it had been spoken in her ear. You are connected to this. This song is your song." Afterward, Rosa rationally analyzes away her response — "a momentary and regrettable submission to kitsch" — but she's drawn back and "filled with a mysterious, euphoric sense of belonging." Try as she might to resist it — and she tries very hard — "something had happened to her, something she could not ignore or deny." All of these moments, even the most painful ones, constantly vibrate with Heller's wit, her steely attention to our delicate egos and desperate longings. Somewhere between the novels of Allegra Goodman and Claire Messud, "The Believers" charts out a terrain all its own. If you haven't read Heller yet, prepare to be converted. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World. He can be reached at charlesr(at)washpost.com. Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Heller creates characters who are defiantly unlovable. Throughout, the novel has a refreshing dryness, a tart economy with words that suits its subjects." Seattle Times
"Heller writes with insight and honesty about the pain involved in testing one's beliefs and the possibility of growth in the process." Library Journal
"[C]aptures those frozen-in-time moments that create a family, for better or for worse." Booklist
The highly anticipated new novel from the author of the acclaimed What Was She Thinking? is a rich, comic chronicle of one family's struggles with the consolations of faith and the trials of doubt.
About the Author
Zoë Heller is the author of two previous novels, Everything You Know and What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003. She lives in New York.
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