The Believers by Zoe Heller is the story of a New York family and how serious illness challenges each person to consider in what they believe. The Litvinoffs are a Jewish family used by Heller as a prism to question our beliefs, not just religious but also motherhood, fidelity and politics.
The story starts with the meeting of English student Audrey and American lawyer Joel, at a party in London in the Sixties. The action then shifts swiftly to 2002. Audrey and Joel live in New York, he is a prominent and outspoken radical lawyer, she does good works. They have two daughters, Rose and Karla, and adopted son Lenny. On the day he is due to appear in court representing a controversial defendant, Joel has a stroke. As he lays in a coma, Heller shows each of the family confronting the situation, its impact on their own lives, or not as the case may be. None of the characters are particularly likeable, and the storyline can be difficult in places, but I found the pages turned quickly as I wanted to know the ending. Of course, like life, there is no neat finale only more life to follow as the stories of the family continue.
Audrey is a deliciously outspoken and brutal mother to her daughters, though she mollycoddles her son to a ridiculous degree. Rosa is re-discovering her Jewish roots, having been raised in a non-observant Jewish family. We follow her exploration of the oddities of Orthodoxy, as she wrestles with the concept of accepting things she doesn’t understand. Karla, unhappily married and trying for a baby, is the recipient most frequently of Audrey’s caustic tongue. Not looking for an affair, she nevertheless stumbles into one, and has difficulty believing and accepting her suitor could possibly be attracted to her. Lenny is a drug addict who believes in nothing except his next hit. Meanwhile, Joel in his hospital bed is the cog of the wheel around which they all move.
I was left loving Heller’s writing, she has a wonderful turn of phrase. ‘Depression, in Karla’s experience, was a dull, inert thing – a toad that squatted wetly on your head until it finally gathered the energy to slither off. The unhappiness she had been living with for the last ten days was quite a different creature. It was frantic and aggressive. It had fists and fangs and hobnailed boots. It didn’t sit, it assailed. It hurt her.’
But, I finished the book dissatisfied with the story. Audrey’s Englishness did not come into play, except in the first chapter which feels unrelated to the rest of the book, and she seems unnecessarily harsh and unfair without real justification. What made her so bitter? Something which happened between the Prologue in 1962, and the main story in 2002? The big surprise, when it comes, is perhaps predictable to everyone except Audrey.
Read the opening paragraph of Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller.
If you like this, try:-
‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen
‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler
‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara
‘The Believers’ by Zoe Heller [UK: Penguin] Buy at Amazon
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