The Believers, by Zoë Heller (HarperCollins, $25.95), is a slashing satire of New York’s liberal elite.
Literary mavens tell you the old-fashioned novel is dead? Don’t believe it. If you love a sprawling good read with characters you come to know intimately and dilemmas you can understand, you will love this book. At once incisive and sometimes hilarious, Heller’s prose quickly assures you that you are in capable hands.
Zoë Heller is a celebrated writer in the U.K., but she hasn’t much name recognition , yet, here in the U.S. Her best-selling second novel, What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, was adapted into the Oscarnominated film Notes on a Scandal, with Judy Dench and Cate Blanchett. That Zoë Heller.
In The Believers, Heller maps new territory for herself; she weaves a tragicomic account of the unraveling and eventual patching together of a family on the verge of total disintegration. The family patriarch Joel Litvinoff, a famed Leftist radical lawyer whose biography will seem immediately familiar to anyone who has been reading newspapers for the past three decades, lies in a stroke-induced coma as his wife, Audrey, their adopted son, Lenny, and their two daughters, Rosa and Karla, examine the negative space in their lives caused by his absence.
Against an authentic backdrop of post-9/11 New York City, Joel’s wife and children find their long-held beliefs — philosophical, psychological, and political — called into question by the secret at the center of the story.
In a family notorious for its anti-religious sentiments — Joel sends back bar and bat mitzvah invitations with the words “There is no God” scrawled across them — daughter Rosa, an ex-Marxist, finds comfort in exploring Orthodox Judaism, much to her mother’s chagrin. Karla, constantly dieting and crippled by her parents’ belief in her mediocrity, discovers an intriguing way (spoiler note: it involves a Muslim newsstand operator) to resist her controlling husband’s efforts to shape her life.
But the book’s true epiphany is left to Audrey, a foul-mouthed Queen of Mean, one of the most outrageous and unforgettable characters in recent fiction. Heller shapes Audrey with a sharp palette- knife. She is a mother who belittles her daughters and enables her drug-using adopted son. An outspoken anti-feminist, Audrey nevertheless scorns traditional female roles. So resistant to nurturing is she that in one memorable scene, her sonin- law recalls “… a recent dinner at which Audrey had upended a can of spaghetti and meatballs onto a serving plate and carved the congealed cylinder into slices.”
Just when you think Audrey has no redeeming qualities at all, Heller deftly turns the tables, and Audrey’s insight is the reader’s as well. She has convinced herself of all she gave up to be the wife of Joel Litvinoff, hero of the Left. When Joel dies she comes to understand that she has lived her life with “… self-flattering delusions, face-saving fantasies.” What use she makes of those insights provides an intriguing and credible conclusion to a memorable book. Interestingly, it is not their radical beliefs that Heller skewers in The Believers, but the final revelation that these people never truly practiced those beliefs at all.
Faye Moskowitz, memoirist and short story writer, is professor of English and Creative Writing at the George.