Zoë Heller’s “The Believers” Is Nasty Family Fun
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Joel Litvinoff, a charismatic and self-important American lawyer meets Audrey, a much younger typing assistant at a party one night in London. The year is 1962 and during the train ride home from their subsequent first date at her parents home, Audrey proposes they sleep together. Afterward, Joel suggests—in a remark intended to dominate the remorseless Audrey—that he take her back to New York and marry her. To both their surprise, she accepts and so begins “The Believers,” the latest novel from Zoë Heller.
Forty years later, the revered and reviled leftist attorney suffers a debilitating stroke. As Joel lies in a hospital bed, his liberal family comes unglued. And this is before the havoc caused when Audrey learns of a secret Joel’s been keeping. The news undermines who she’s convinced herself she is and propels Joel and Audrey’s three children to further question their identities.
Karla is a social worker nearly debilitated by her lack of self-esteem. Known for being a caretaker, she lets people—especially her mother—verbally abuse and belittle her. She’s overweight and treading water in a marriage for which she settled. Rosa takes after her parents, sharing the same ideological streak. Revolutionary work leaves her frustrated and wanting more, however, and she begins to explore Orthodox Judaism, the ultimate rebellion in Audrey’s eyes. The third child, Lenny, is the great and failed altruistic experiment of Joel’s life. Adopted at the age of seven, Lenny is Audrey’s favorite child, the only one of the three who inspires in her the maternal instinct. With Audrey’s enabling, Lenny spins his way through the revolving door of rehab. And of course, there’s the matriarch herself. Obstinate and outspoken, cruel and unapologetic, Audrey is a dogmatic harridan, a force of belligerence and wild contradiction that tears through this story with a sometimes-frightening rage.
Zoë Heller is a magnificent writer, offering a pointed assessment of belief and faith. She paints complex characters in rich and vivid hues with sharp honesty but just enough compassion. At moments any one of them is despicable, saying and doing things to each other that make you cringe. But then she highlights the humanity, the frailness, and the flaws so eloquently, it would be next to impossible not to feel moved. With her seemingly effortless descriptions, Heller plants kernels of understanding like scattered dandelion seeds and shows you the way to forgiveness for each of the determinedly searching Litvinoffs.
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