Synopses & Reviews
The book opens with a prologue set in mid-sixties London, where Joel Litvinoff, an American civil rights lawyer, meets a young Englishwoman, Audrey. After a brief and apparently casual affair, she decides to go to the United States and marry him.
The main narrative then commences in New York in 2002. Joel is 72 and approaching the end of a long and illustrious career as an activist lawyer. He and Audrey live in Greenwich Village and have three adult children: two daughters, Rosa and Karla, and an adopted son, Lenny. Audrey is now an acid-tongued, domineering woman in late middle age who fiercely defends, but never questions, the political stance that has shaped her life. Her most tender feelings appear to be directed towards Lenny, a frequent drug user who is incapable of personal responsibility.
Karla, the neglected and under-appreciated oldest child, is a social worker who is married, not very happily, to Mike. They have been trying unsuccessfully to start a family. Rosa works with disadvantaged young girls. She is becoming increasingly interested in Judaism, a faith rejected along with all others by her Jewish parents. For this she is much derided by Audrey.
Joel suffers a stroke while in court and is in a coma for most of the time span covered by the book. Audrey is convinced he is not getting proper care in the hospital and creates difficulties for its medical staff. During this time of stress, Karlas unhappiness with her marriage rises to the surface. She begins an affair with Khaled, originally from Egypt, who runs a newspaper store at the hospital where they both work. Rosa immerses herself in the study of Orthodox Judaism and, though she finds many of its teachings difficult to accept, though she perseveres. A stranger, Berenice Mason, introduces herself to Audrey, claiming that her son is Joels illegitimate child. Though Audrey initially dismisses her with contempt, it emerges that her story is true and that Berenice has been receiving regular financial support from Joel.
Lenny is persuaded by Audreys friend Jean to go to her country home in Pennsylvania for a month in order to get off drugs. He makes great progress there and, when Audrey visits, he proposes settling in Pennsylvania permanently. Appalled by the prospect of losing him, Audrey does her best to discourage the idea. Rosa abandons, and then takes up again, her studies in Orthodox Judaism deciding finally that she must pursue her religious intuitions.
Joel dies without regaining consciousness. At his funeral, which is attended by thousands, Audrey gives a eulogy in which she celebrates her 40-year marriage to her husband and makes a public acknowledgment of Berenice and her son. At the reception afterwards, Karla makes a last-minute, momentous decision regarding her own marriage.
Zoë Heller, author of Notes on a Scandal
and Everything You Know
has written a comic, tragic tale about one family’s struggles with the consolations of faith and the trials of doubt.
When Joel Litvinoff is felled by a stroke, his wife, Audrey, uncovers a secret that forces her to re-examine her ideas about their forty-year marriage. Joel’s children will soon have to come to terms with this unsettling discovery themselves, but for the time being, they are grappling with their own dilemmas. Rosa is being pressed to make a commitment to religion. Karla is falling in love with the owner of a newspaper concession and Lenny is back on drugs. In the course of battling their own demons and each other, every member of the family is called upon to re-examine long-held articles of faith and to decide what – if anything – they still believe in.
About the Author
Zoë Heller was born in London in 1965 and educated at Oxford University and Columbia University, New York. After writing book reviews for several newspapers she became a feature writer for the Independent
and a columnist for the Sunday Times
. She now writes for the Daily Telegraph
, having been awarded the title “Columnist of the Year” for 2002. She has also been a contributor to several magazines.
As a novelist, before writing The Believers, she published Everything You Know (2000) and Notes on a Scandal (2003), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for fiction and was made into a feature film starring Cate Blanchett and Dame Judi Dench.
Zoë Heller lives in New York.
Reading Group Guide
1. Did you find your opinions of the characters in The Believers
changed as you read the book?
2. Are there characters that you ended up feeling more positive or sympathetic towards than others?
3. Choosing two characters, can you give examples of personality traits you find appealing and unappealing about each?
4. Do you find that the books wit helps to make the family tensions more bearable, or do you find the humour uncomfortable?
5. Do you find the men and the women in the book to be equally rounded characters?
6. What influence does Joel have on the family after his stroke, when he is in a coma?
7. Are there aspects of the book that you feel are unfairly critical of peoples political, moral or religious beliefs?
8. Do you feel that the beliefs and self knowledge the characters end up with are more genuine than those they start out with?
9. Discuss how you think the lives of the members of the Litvinoff family will continue during the months after the funeral. How closely will each of them stick to the decisions they have made?
10. What are your feelings about Audreys eulogy at Joels funeral?
11. What motivates Audreys apparent change of heart regarding Berenice?
12. Do you consider the book to present belief in a negative or positive light?
How much research did you have to do for The Believers?
I read a lot of books about Judaism and about the process of conversion. I also spent a bit of time with some Orthodox Jews. But I didn’t do an enormous amount of research. I have found that too much research tends to get in the way when you’re writing fiction: you become swamped in facts and feel honour-bound to include them all.
The book is full of minute but telling observations — visual metaphors, apparently casual but revealing verbal exchanges and emotional reactions. Do you keep a notebook in which you store these up?
I do keep a notebook. It’s a terrible thing to have an idea for a scene or for a piece of dialogue and then realize an hour later that you’ve forgotten it.
Did you enjoy writing Audrey’s acid — and often cruel — dialogue?
Yes, I did. Audrey is a monster, but I find her quite a funny, entertaining monster.
Are there any characters you particularly identified with?
I think the aim is to identify with all your protagonists in some way. There are certainly aspects of my experience and my outlook in all three women.
You constantly surprise us by revealing new facets of the characters’ personalities so that we have to keep reassessing our opinions of them. Is this a difficult balancing act?
I wasn’t aware of doing what you describe, although I’m very happy if I have. Ideally, I think fictional characters should reveal themselves to the reader as people do in real life — not all at once, but slowly, in fits and starts, over a period of time.
Did you decide from the outset that you would have a prologue set in the 1960s? And what was your intention in giving us that?
I think I wanted to show what Audrey was like before she became monstrous so that, later on, the reader might have some understanding of the human being lurking within that formidable carapace. I also wanted to give the reader some sense of the political atmosphere in which Audrey and Joel first met and how, like many couples, they started their relationship with a fundamental misprision of one another’s character. (Audrey thinks Joel is a thoroughly honourable man, offering her the chance to be his equal partner in the Struggle; he thinks she is enormously self-possessed and cool. And of course, neither interpretation turns out to be correct.)
Did you consider ending the story at a different point? Or writing an epilogue to show where the characters were, say, ten years after Joel’s funeral?
No. The story always ended this way. In my mind, the ending gives you pretty strong clues as to how and where they will all be in ten years’ time.
You are dealing with some very sensitive areas. On the whole, have people reacted to the book as you expected?
A few people seem to have read it as a satire on nineteen-sixities liberal values. I’m a bit taken aback by that. I think of this book as being a critical but sympathetic look at the ways in which belief systems of all kinds — conservative, revolutionary, religious, etc. — operate on their adherents.
Have you had any feedback from any of the real-life left-wing icons who make guest appearances in your story?