|The Believers: A Novel
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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. Ne'er-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.
I loved Notes On A Scandal so was expecting great things of The Believers. Sadly, it failed to deliver. I liked none of the characters and got no real sense of their relationship with each other. They all seemed rather cliched - the bad tempered mother, the pretty daughter trying to find herself, the fat daughter with low self-esteem, the drug-addled adopted son - and one dimensional. The mother was a particular disappointment, her response to each and every situation being verbal abuse. Surely after the twentieth or so time she told a friend, relative, or anyone else she came into contact with to ****off, Heller could have come up with something else, or at least a variation on the theme. I kept waiting for the story to develop but apart from the appearance of a mistress and illegitimate child, there was little to hold my interest. ...more info
- A stunning family drama, a biting comedy and a political commentary rolled into one
Joel Litvinoff would probably be the first to admit that he's the sun around which the entire Litvinoff clan revolves. Charismatic, egocentric, a celebrity among the celebrities of the left thanks to his lifelong crusade to defend downtrodden and politically disadvantaged legal clients, Joel is the powerful center of a dynamic if somewhat dysfunctional family.
That is, until a courtroom stroke fells the mighty Joel Litvinoff minutes before opening arguments in his latest high-profile case. Suddenly, as a now frail-looking Joel lies in a coma, it's as if the sun has gone out, and the rest of the Litvinoffs find themselves cast out of their customary orbits.
There's Lenny, Joel's youngest child, adopted at age seven when his birth mother was arrested for revolutionary activities. Since then, Lenny has frustrated his adoptive parents to no end, participating in a variety of self-destructive activities, from drug use to shoplifting. It's not that Joel and his wife Audrey are opposed to defiant activity: "Joel would not have minded --- or at least not have minded so much --- had Lenny ever put his rebellious impulses to some principled use: run away to join the Sandinistas, say, or vandalized U.S. Army recruiting offices." Lenny's damaging behaviors, however, remain firmly apolitical --- and seem to be spiraling out of control in the weeks after Joe's stroke.
Then there's Rosa, raised by her parents to be a good Marxist but having second thoughts after returning to the U.S., disillusioned after living for several years in Cuba. Dissatisfied by her job working with inner-city youth, Rosa finds herself inexplicably drawn to Orthodox Judaism, dismaying and angering her vehemently antitheist parents.
And there's Karla, a social worker who wants to hold strong convictions but secretly loathes herself for her weakness when it comes to food. Her union organizer husband desperately wants a child, fantasizing about recreating his own idyllic suburban upbringing, but the fertilely challenged Karla finds herself wondering, especially in the absence of appropriately nurturing parental figures, just what is the point of having a child.
Finally, there's Audrey, Joel's wife. Brutally honest (or sometimes just brutal), Audrey's caustic observations of the world constantly challenge, humiliate and infuriate her children: "Her mother was always congratulating herself on her audacious honesty, her willingness to express what everyone else was thinking. But no one...actually shared Audrey's ugly view of the world. It was not the truth of her observations that made people laugh, but their unfairness, their surreal cruelty."
Not surprisingly, Joel's absence --- especially when she discovers that he was hiding the existence of an illegitimate child --- forces Audrey to confront her own acerbic defense mechanisms and what they might be covering up: "Her temper...had begun to express authentic resentments: boredom with motherhood, fury at her husband's philandering, despair at the pettiness of her domestic fate." Now, although luminaries from Judy Collins to Jesse Jackson pay homage in Joel's hospital room, Audrey finds herself a revolutionary without a cause, an unmitigated ball of rage without an appropriate target.
Zo? Heller, who wrote the novel on which the award-winning film Notes on a Scandal was based, has become known for her keen observation, piercing satire and intriguing depictions of fascinating but ultimately unlikable characters. In this vein, Heller's characterization of Audrey Litvinoff is one of the most memorable in recent years. Audrey is rarely sympathetic, often outright nasty, but always intriguing. Likewise, Heller's cutting depiction of the political ultra-left's congratulatory self-righteousness and of the aimless peregrinations of their children results in a satirical tour de force.
THE BELIEVERS is a stunning family drama, a biting comedy and a political commentary rolled into one, giving readers much to discuss --- and a whole lot to believe in.
--- Reviewed by Norah Piehl...more info
- Are We Laughing With Them or at Them? Maybe Both.
Zoe Heller can write. She is a master of acerbic wit, denigration, parody. sarcasm, and layered complexity. She writes with a sensibility that I can only compare to varying musical keys. Her story vacillates from the minor keys to the major, from melodic to dissonant, sometimes in the same paragraph.
This novel is about the Litvinoff family. There is Audrey, the mother and matriarch. She has an attitude like spoiled meat. She "was always congratulating herself on her audacious honesty, her willingness to express what everyone else was thinking. But no one...actually shared Audrey's ugly view of the world. It was not the truth of her observations that made people laugh, but their unfairness, their surreal cruelty" (p.53). No one is spared from her cruelty except her husband and her son, Lenny. Audrey wonders how she has become a harridan. "Once upon a time, her brash manner had been a mere posture - - a convenient and amusing way for an insecure teenage bride, newly arrived in America, to disguise her crippling shyness." (p189) "But somewhere along the way, when she hadn't been paying attention, her temper had ceased to be a beguiling party act that could be switched on an off at will. It had begun to express authentic resentments: boredom with motherhood, fury at her husband's philandering, despair at the pettiness of her domestic fate". (p. 189) "Her anger had become part of her. It was a knotted thicket in her gut, too dense to be cut down and too deeply entrenched in the loamy soil of her disappointments to be uprooted". (p. 190) Audrey's public persona is that she is the power behind the throne, Joel's muse. At heart, however, she knows she is not that. Had she not married Joel, she would have been relegated to a clerical job in England and probably never have left the provincial town where she was raised.
Joel has been a star in the ideological socialist battle, a protester at heart. He is an attorney who has championed the underdog whether guilty or innocent. He does this until the day he has a stroke while in the midst of a trial for an alleged Al Quaida sympathizer.
Rosa had been her father's star child, the one who appeared to take the family's ideological messages most to heart. She had lived in Cuba for four years, marched while a student at Bard college and wanted her father's approval. Lately, however, she has been toying with the idea of orthodox Judaism much to her parents' chagrin. Now, her Rabbi has asked her to make a commitment to Judaism.
Karla is a passive and quiet social worker, locked into a stale marriage to a union organizer who doesn't appreciate her. While growing up she was the lost child, the one who desperately sought, but rarely received attention. She is self-denigrating and worries constantly about her weight and her body image. Audrey doesn't help things by telling Karla how fat she is. Now Karla is finding herself falling in love with the owner of a newspaper kiosk near her work site and she is torn about what to do. Her husband wants to adopt a child and this is not something Karla is interested in doing.
Lenny is the adopted child. He is a n'eer do well with a history of drug addiction and several stints in rehab. He is Audrey's favorite, the one who she loves the most. She is enmeshed with him and is a great enabler, not helping him with his attempts to get clean and sober. In fact, she gives him money when she knows he'll be using it to buy drugs. She even smokes dope in from of him when he is desperately trying to remain clean and sober.
Joel is languishing in a coma and Audrey is resistant to turning off life support. All of a sudden, a secret is exposed that threatens the integrity of the family's beliefs about themselves. As readers, we are privy to the hypocrisies that abound before this secret. They, however, are not. How they deal with this secret, this new information, makes for an interesting situation.
This book is filled with complexities along with sympathetic yet unlikable characters. We are torn between laughing at them or laughing with them. I found myself thinking that many situations reminded me of when I was a child and a friend fell off a bike. I inadvertently found myself laughing even though I didn't want to and even though I wanted to help my friend. It was an automatic response, almost like a hiccup. This book creates the same sought of deep and primitive responses that arise before the facade of civilization has the time to sieve and sort. This is a grand book by a brilliant author....more info
- A refreshing change
This is a book with unhappy, dysfunctional characters, questions of religious identity, fear, doubt and marital conflict. Lots of reality and quirkiness. The writing style is mostly dialogue vs narration.
I thought it was a refreshing change after the way too many formula written happy ending and predictable suspense novels I've been reading. This is a one of a kind and very worth reading. ...more info
- The penultimate dysfunctional family
The Believers is the story of an extraordinarily dysfunctional family. None of the characters are likable; all of them are believable. The title is misleading. None of the family members seem to believe in any thing.
I would have preferred more expansive character development. The themes Heller writes about are profound. The family is Jewish by origin, although the parents have repudiated the faith and provided no religious upbringing for their children.This topic is one that resonates with many people who renounced organized religion in the sixties. One daughter, Rosa, explores Judaism, and although Heller writes several interesting scenes describing Orthodox practice, Rosa's inner questioning is never fully explored. The other daughter, Karla, is also battling internal doubt. Her struggle revolves around her husband's desire for parenthood. Heller very briefly introduces Karla's ambivalence regarding becoming a mother, but again misses the opportunity to develop a profound issue.
Perhaps I want too much from these characters. People as self-absorbed and dogmatic as Heller's characters are rarely introspective. ...more info
- Zoe Heller does not disappoint!
What a gem of a novel. I adored her other books and this was no different. I thoroughly enjoyed the make-up of each character and the way each contributed perfectly to the intricate family dynamic. I went through every emotion reading this novel and truly connected to the plight of the characters. Zoe Heller is an incredibly gifted writer, I even enjoyed reading her ending acknowledgments!! I recommend this book very highly and hope that all enjoy it as I did....more info
- Exceeds Expectations
As a fan of Notes On A Scandal, I was excited to pick up Heller's The Believers. I was not disappointed. Its such a joy to have your expectations met and exceeded by a contemporary author's new work. She delivers the barbed wit and satire just as I had hoped. The characters are authentic in a way that's alarming and off-putting, but you still become so engage in their lives. Zoe Heller is really a voice that can not be missed....more info
- BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
Heller's long-awaited new novel is hands down best book of the year. I laughed my face off, cried (in the good, cathartic way) AND looked at the world around me in an entirely new way after reading this book. The writing is expressive and beautiful, and every time I tried to predict a turn in the plot I was proven dead wrong. These characters, however evil, are utterly magnetic, and Heller manages to end the book on a note of hope. You will NOT expect the twist at the end of this book, nor will it annoy you.
This book is the kind you never forget, I loved every second of it. ...more info
- I Believe It!
I LOVED this book. Another great one by Zoe Heller. She does a great job of making you care for otherwise unlikable characters. I couldn't put it down! Sharp satire with an unforgettable dysfunctional family. As a fan of NOTES ON A SCANDAL, I think THE BELIEVERS has it beat. With the character of Audrey, Heller's written a truly memorable villain. Heller's made a Believer out of me!
- Fierce, lash-out-loud, moving
Zoe Heller is sui generis, a gutsy, peerless writer with master control of her narrative. This is a family saga that takes no prisoners. Her sardonic style is crisp, erudite. Her characters are not caricatures--as outrageous as they are, they feel true.
Audrey Litvinoff, the matriarch, is a flinty, pained woman with a major character disorder. While her husband lies in a coma, she is told some uncomfortable news about his dirty little secrets. With a kind of acerbic, acid aplomb, she spins into a denial that threatens to unravel her. As it is, she is wound so tight that I felt my own circulation threatening to block off. But she is so exuberant that I was often reeling in her energy. She is staggered by her own wretchedness and projects it onto those around her. She is especially harsh to her own daughters, but overprotects and enables her drug-addicted son.
Her daughters, Karla and Rosa, are choked by their mother's dominance and have no sense of their own identity. Karla lives in her husband's shadow and Rosa seeks a self through Orthodox Judaism. Audrey's son, Lenny, could be reductively defined as a spoiled, angry brat. He is certainly a lost soul--a weak, spineless, selfish son of his mother (although he was adopted).
Heller's prose is so muscular it punctures the air, it leaves streaks of blood on your fingers as you turn the pages. I had an out and out blast reading this novel. It is lofty, but wet and juicy and wholly entertaining. The pages flowed with as much alacrity as her narrative. It nearly singed my fingers.
This is my first Heller novel. Some reviewers complain that her characters are not likable. Well, paradoxically, I don't necessarily like a character that is likable. I like them vivid and buzzing and original. Audrey leaps out of the novel and claws your face--and I still had empathy for her. I was moved by her and the events of this story. This is one author that has made a believer out of me.
- Vicious, Delicious Satire
I've been obsessed with Notes on a Scandal for years but The Believers blows me away...such biting, intelligent satire of contemporary society, complete with the kinds of characters everyone loves to hate. This book is honest and brutal and smart. I only wish I hadn't had to wait five years! I love Heller's singular voice, and think she's a shoe-in for the Booker Prize and every other literary accolade. You MUST read this book, I cannot get it out of my head!...more info
- Best book I've read in a long time
That's all. Best book I've read in ages, couldn't put it down. Stayed up late. I love these quirky characters. ...more info
- BEST BOOK I'VE READ SO FAR THIS YEAR
I must say I was a little bit skeptical when my wife recommended this book (she read it in a day), but the Believers is a powerful story that is captivating from beginning to end. Every single character has a distinct personality, and serves a purpose in piecing together the story. An engaging, fast-paced storyline combined with an array of distinct characters kept me on the edge of my seat all throughout. I'm happy to say, Zoe Heller does not disappoint. ...more info
- She's done it again!
Following in the footsteps of "Notes on a Scandal," "The Believers" doesn't disappoint. The Litvinoffs bring the term dysfunctional to a whole other level. Combine this with Heller's satirical wit and authentic characters, I couldn't put it down....more info
- ZOE HELLER IS A LITERARY GIANT
Following her second novel, What Was She Thinking? Notes On A Scandal,which was not only a Booker Prize finalist but also made into an Oscar nominated film, Zoe Heller presents an insightful, deftly layered
study of a dysfunctional New York family.
The author unflinchingly details the derailment of the Litvinoff family after father Joel, is felled by a major stroke which leaves him in a coma. He is a lawyer well known for his political views as well as impassioned defenses of radicals and terrorists. Wife, Audrey is a thoroughly disagreeable woman who disparages their daughters, Rosa and Karla, at every turn.
After some 40 years of marriage she considers her acerbic comments to be rather charming, sort of beguiling when they are in reality mean spirited and cruel. Karla is an overweight social worker married to Mike, a union organizer, who worships her father. They are unsuccessfully trying to have a child with perfunctory love making that leaves Karla wondering why or how her life came to this.
Rosa, although raised in a Jewish family devoid of any religious beliefs, finds herself strangely drawn to an Orthodox faith. She attends a synagogue and participates in a Shabbaton, which she describes as "an extended Sabbath with extra lectures and things" in response to Audrey's insulting, irreverent questions.
No peace or congeniality is to be found anywhere in the Litvinoff clan, certainly not between Audrey and Joel's mother, Hannah, who bicker as "In his silence, Joel had become a perfectly passive prize, an infinitely interpretable symbol: a Sphinx whose meanings and ownership they could squabble over forever, without fear of decisive contradiction."
Revelations occur as the story progresses and without Joel as the patriarchal glue that holds them all together each must make decisions for themselves, discover who they are and what they want to be.
The pleasure of reading "The Believers" is found in Heller's astute observations of human behavior, her pinpoint characterizations, and flawless, imaginative prose. Who else would describe a dream that Audrey cannot remember as images that were "slipping away from her grasp, like the prizes in a fairground machine falling from the clumsy mechanical claw." ?
For this reader, Heller is a literary giant, both funny and intelligent, always thought provoking and entertaining.
- Gail Cooke