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March 23, 2009

The Believers by Zoë Heller

As a novelist, Zoë Heller’s tendency has been to write against her readers’ expectations. Certainly, readers accustomed to her “single-girl-about-town” newspaper columns during the 1990s were uneasy embracing Willy Muller, the nasty piece of work/wife-murdering protagonist of her first novel Everything You Know. Readers were hard-pressed to find sympathy for either of the two main characters in her second novel Notes on a Scandal, which all the same went on to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and received acclaim as a film.

Her third novel The Believers has something more of convention about it than the other two. Reminiscent of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty in that it is a domestic novel of ideas written by an English novelist about America, Heller this time has created an ensemble piece about the Litvinoff family, crusading left-wing lawyer Joel, his wife Audrey, their daughters Rosa (who has recently converted from athiest socialist to Orthodox Jew) and Karla (who has started cheating on her bland Union official husband), and their adopted son Lenny the deadbeat. When a stroke puts Joel into a coma, the family must realign itself without its centre of orbit, and each character is significantly changed in the process.

The novel begins in 1962 London when Joel and Audrey first meet at a party. He stands apart from the crowd, older and American. She notices that as he’s listening to others talking, he’ll periodically lean back onto one foot and mime throwing a ball. He notices her too, intrigued her seeming sense of dignity, “[b]ut he was anxious to have it done with now– to be told the trick of it. A girl who could never be talked down to would be exhausting in the long run.” And it is through a series of misunderstandings that these two people, within a day of meeting one another, end up signing on together for the rest of a life. Near the end of which is where the novel formally begins a page later, in New York in 2002.

The Believers is a book about faith, about the nature belief, though of course like any truly successful novel of ideas, it is also a book about people. Joel is only slightly dealt with before the coma writes him off, but we get a sense of his charisma, of perhaps its obsolescence, and that, for a multitude of reasons, he mightn’t have been the easiest man to be married to. This is underlined by the woman Audrey has become forty years after meeting him, the latest of Heller’s “nasty piece of work” characters. She’s the kind of woman who “tells it like it is”, even when it isn’t, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, or pander to anyone, and carries a sense of superiority for all of these traits. She’s disappointed in her daughters, indulges and enables her deadbeat son, and is in general quite impossible, offensive, and an absolutely marvelous character construction who absolutely rings true.

That the other characters are less realized in comparison really says more about Audrey. Their characters also formed in such reaction to hers that they will be more predictable, understandable, while Audrey might be compared to that proverbial bull in a china shop or a ticking time bomb. This would especially be the case now that she’s lost an anchor to her self in Joel, and more over their entire marriage has been undermined by a woman who’s turned up claiming to be Joel’s ex-mistress, the mother of his three-year old son. The revelation shattering illusions about Joel, and forcing his wife and children to redefine themselves in light of this now altered sense of who he was.

In The Believers, Heller illuminates the faith necessary to try to live a life without faith. The way in which politics and even family can become a surrogate religion, filling up the void. And also the faith required to sustain a marriage, to raise a child, to save the world, and the strange nature of the kind of belief in that such things are even possible.

One thought on “The Believers by Zoë Heller”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this fascinating, insightful review. Now I’m even more convinced that this is my kind of book.

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