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'Believers' targets an unruly family

By Mary Ambrose
March 8, 2009
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THE BELIEVERS
By Zoë Heller
Harper, 335 pp., $25.99

"The Believers," Zoë Heller's third novel, is an exploration of what happens when the beliefs of a family dissolve. What's left of your morality, your very self?

The protagonists are the members of a left-leaning, Jewish family in New York who lose their political guiding star and patriarch. The women are left to redefine themselves.

Heller has a way with characters, as she demonstrated in her hugely successful previous novel, "What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal." The title is tellingly tilted to the characters rather than the crime - a teacher's affair with her student. The women in that book are credible, unpleasant, and weirdly fascinating narrators. "The Believers" is similar, though with a much larger canvas and more narrators - few likable, though most are intriguing. And Heller never lets you see her sweat. Her fine prose appears effortless.

Heller's characters are less disciplined than their author, almost too distracted to stay the course. "The Believers" has the rudderless, shambolic feel of life. It seems real, but the novel suffers plot breaks. It starts one place and changes direction. The prologue opens in 1962 in a small London flat the night when mousy, feisty Audrey Howard meets Joel Litvinoff, a hot young lefty American lawyer cutting his professional teeth in civil rights fights. Her appeal for this charismatic man is not evident, but Heller's couples are always credible. We've all met odder matches in life.

Chapter 1, and it's 2002. Litvinoff is headed into court to fight thin accusations against a young suspected terrorist, and the reader settles in for a sharp, witty critique of the New York political left by a clever writer. That rapidly falls away as Litvinoff is felled by a stroke. The inherent drama of his story dissipates, and the politics at the center of his life are reduced to the backbeat in the lives of his women.

In Audrey, Heller paints a marvelous portrait of an English type: the woman who can't control her sharp tongue. Audrey notices that her aggression is not allowing her to age well. No longer is she a sexy young woman with a short fuse, "but a middle-aged termagant" whose anger is "too deeply entrenched in the loamy soil of her disappointments to be uprooted." Heller's insights make her slips forgivable. We spend way too much time with Audrey's anger. People argue in this book, a lot. It's realistic but more tedious than funny, the way others' fights are.

Besides Audrey, the other two women in the Litvinoffs' lives are their grown daughters. Kind, quiet Karla is the conventional, long-suffering eldest, trapped in a softly disappointing marriage. This character suits Heller's adroitness. As Karla begins to sense her sadness and thus tap her own feelings, it evokes sympathy without falling into bathos.

Her sister, Rosa, is made of sterner stuff and is only slightly less grumpy and unpleasant than her mother. She's abandoned being a full-time politico and settled for being "just another do-gooder" earning a living by caring for disadvantaged children.

Dumping the religion of her politics, Rosa embraces her Jewish heritage, in a rather charming, cranky way.

Heller found fame as a writer with a column in The Sunday Times in London about her life as a young single British woman in New York City. Without Bridget Jones's self-pitying tone, or the fantasy of "Sex in the City," she wrote compelling copy about odd dinner parties, negotiating with dubious neighbors, and relationships with on-again-off-again, please-just-drop-dead men.

These skills help her take on the Litvinoffs. Largely selfish and difficult to root for, they're the ones who ruin dinner parties, droning on despite being met by glazed eyes. Or they chop into bloody bits those with the temerity to disagree with them. This makes the novel at times tedious. However, the true sparks, flashes of brilliance, and the straightness of Heller's skewers make it an interesting read. Perhaps that's appropriate for a novel about the impossibility of paradise.

Mary Ambrose is managing editor of New America Media in San Francisco.

THE BELIEVERS

By ZoŽ Heller

Harper, 335 pp., $25.99

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