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The Believers: A Novel

The Believers: A Novel

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The Believers: A Novel

3.5/5 (76 ratings)
461 pages
5 hours
Oct 6, 2009


“[Zoe Heller] is an extraordinarily entertaining writer, and this novel showcases her copious gifts, including a scathing, Waugh-like wit.”—New York Times

Best-selling author Zoe Heller has followed up the critical and commercial success of What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal with another tour-de-force on the meaning of faith, belief, and trust: The Believers. Tragic and comic, witty and intense, The Believers is the story of a dysfunctional family forced by tragedy to confront their own personal demons. In the vein of Claire Messud and Zadie Smith, Zoe Heller has written that rare novel that tackles the big ideas without sacrificing page-turning readability.

Oct 6, 2009

About the author

Zoë Heller is the author of Everything You Know and What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and made into an acclaimed film starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench. Heller lives in New York.

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The Believers - Zoe Heller






New York, 2002

At dawn, on the top floor of a creaking house in Greenwich Village, Joel and Audrey lay in bed. Through a gap in the curtains, a finger of light extended slowly across their quilt. Audrey was still far out to sea in sleep. Joel was approaching shore—splashing about in the turbulent shallows of a doze. He flailed and crooned and slapped irritably at his sheets. Presently, when the rattling couplets of his snores reached one of their periodic crescendos, he awoke and grimaced in pain.

For two days now, he had been haunted by a headache: an icy clanking deep in his skull, as if some sharp-edged metal object had come loose and were rolling about in there. Audrey had been dosing him with Tylenol and urging him to drink more water. But it wasn’t liquids or pills he needed, he thought: it was a mechanic. He lay for a few moments, holding the back of his hand to his brow like a Victorian heroine with the vapors. Then he sat up bravely and fumbled for his spectacles on the crowded bedside table. In a matter of hours, he would be giving the defense’s opening argument in the case of The United States of America v. Mohammed Hassani. Last night before falling asleep, he had made some last-minute amendments to his prepared address, and he was anxious to look them over.

Sometimes, in our earnest desire to protect this great country of ours, we can and do make errors. Errors that threaten to undermine the very liberties we are trying to protect. I am here to tell you that the presence of Mohammed Hassani in this courtroom today is one such error.

He squinted into the middle distance, trying to gauge the effectiveness of his rhetoric. Hassani was one of the Schenectady Six—a group of Arab Americans from upstate New York who had visited an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan during the spring of 1998. Over the last two months, the five other members of the group had all made deals with the prosecutors. But Joel hated to make deals: at his urging, Hassani had held out and pleaded not guilty to all charges.

You have been told that Mohammed Hassani is a supporter of terrorism. You have been told that he hates America and wants to aid and abet those who would destroy it. Allow me to tell you, now, who Mohammed Hassani really is. He is an American citizen with three American children and an American wife to whom he has been married for fifteen years. He is a grocer, a small businessman, the sponsor of a Little League team—a person who has lived and worked in upstate New York all his life. Does he possess strong religious beliefs? Yes. But remember, ladies and gentlemen, whatever the prosecution tries to suggest, it is not Islam that is on trial in this courtroom. Has Mr. Hassani voiced criticisms of American foreign policy? Certainly. Does this fact make him a traitor? No, it does honor to the constitutional freedoms upon which our country was founded.

The basis of Joel’s argument was that his client had been taken to the training camp under false pretenses. One of his acquaintances at the mosque he attended in Schenectady had deliberately misrepresented the camp as a religious center.

That’s right: Hassani traveled to Afghanistan on the understanding that he was to take part in a spiritual retreat. In the coming days, you will hear how he tried, on more than one occasion, to get out of participating in the camp’s mandatory weapons training—purposefully injuring himself in one instance so that he wouldn’t have to fire a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. You will hear how he categorically refused invitations from the camp leaders to become involved in violent actions back in the United States. Ladies and gentlemen, you may take issue with Hassani’s political and religious views. You may feel he is guilty of making an extremely poor vacation choice. But you cannot, in good conscience, convict this man of being a terrorist or even a terrorist sympathizer.

Joel glanced at his sleeping wife. Audrey disagreed with his strategy on this case. She maintained that he ought to be defending Hassani on grounds of legitimate Arab rage. Audrey took a much harder political line than he did on most things these days. He didn’t mind. In fact, he rather enjoyed the irony of being chastised for his insufficient radicalism by the woman to whom he had once had to explain the Marxist concepts of base and superstructure. When he complained that she had become an ultra-leftist in her old age, he did so in the indulgent tones in which another man might have teased his wife for her excessive spending at the mall. It was a feminine prerogative to hold unreasonable political views, he felt. And besides, he liked having some old-fashioned extremism about the house: it made him feel young.

Joel was still reading when, at 6:30, the radio alarm on his bedside table clicked into life. He peeled off his clammy pajama bottoms, rolled them into a ball, and lobbed them elegantly into the laundry basket. He had been a talented sportsman in his youth—the handball champion of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn—and he had never lost the jock’s habit of improvising minor athletic challenges for himself. He stood up now and stretched in front of the mirror on the closet door. At seventy-two, his nakedness was still formidable. His legs were strong. His chest, carpeted in whorls of gray hair, was broad. His penis was thick and long enough to bump companionably against his thigh as he strode out to the bathroom.

On the landing, he paused. Somewhere down below, he could hear the dim roar of a vacuum cleaner and the tuneless whistling of Julie, his sister-in-law. Ever since Julie had arrived from England two days ago with her husband, Colin, she had been flitting up and down the groaning Perry Street staircase with buckets, dusters, and antibacterial detergents in the saintly manner of Florence Nightingale bringing succor to a Crimean field hospital. Audrey was in a terrible snit about it. The implied insult to her own standards of cleanliness did not bother her, she claimed. (This was plausible: Audrey had always been rather proud of being a slob.) What bothered her was Julie’s faith in the redemptive power of lemony freshness and the assumption that others shared it. If she wants to practice her neurotic hygiene back home, that’s one thing, Audrey had hissed the night before, as she was getting into bed. "But I don’t see why I have to put up with her powdered fucking carpet fragrances in my house."

After he had finished up in the bathroom, Joel put on sweatpants and a shirt and went downstairs. He found Julie on the second-floor landing, fitting the vacuum with a special nozzle for hard-to-reach corners. Good morning! Good morning! he cried as he stepped around her. In order to discourage prolonged interactions with his sister-in-law, he always addressed her as if he were calling to her from the window of a fast-moving train.

Down on the first floor, Colin was sitting at the kitchen table, reading a New York travel guide. Good morning to you, kind sir! he exclaimed when he saw Joel flashing by. Julie and I are off to Ground Zero in a bit. Is these anywhere down there that you’d recommend for lunch?

Nope, sorry, Joel said, as he hurried down the hall. Can’t help you out there.

Might I offer you a cup of tea? Colin called after him.

No, thanks. I’m going out to get the papers.

Joel was just opening the front door when he felt an answering push from the other side. It’s me, a voice said. I forgot my keys.

The door swung open to reveal Joel’s adopted son, Lenny, and Lenny’s girlfriend, Tanya, standing limply on the doorstep, holding paper cups of Starbucks coffee. Tanya was wearing a jacket of ragged rabbit fur over her minidress. Lenny was shivering in a T-shirt. They both had the spectral look of people who had not slept in some time.

Ah, love’s young dream! Joel cried with a facetious bow.

Hey, Lenny said. He was a tall man with a boyish, delicate face. Were it not for the gap between his two front teeth and the slight droop in his left eye, he would have been pretty. As it was, his raffish imperfections tipped the scale and made him beautiful.

To what do I owe this rare pleasure? Joel asked. Lenny was officially living back at home these days, but most nights, he slept at Tanya’s apartment.

Lenny cast a pale hand through untidy hair. Tanya had a party at her place, he said. Somebody pissed on her bed, so—

Jesus! The vehemence of Joel’s tone suggested that it was his own bed that had been violated. What kind of friends do you have?

Lenny made a gesture with his hands as if he were pushing down on some invisible volume control. It’s no big deal, Dad. The guy didn’t mean to…. Can we come in? It’s freezing out here.

What do you mean, ‘didn’t mean to’? Joel demanded. "He pissed on her bed by accident?"

Whatever. Just forget it. Lenny squeezed past Joel and headed into the kitchen. Tanya followed.

Oh, sure, go ahead, Joel shouted after them, help yourselves to whatever you want. Mi casa es su casa… He stood for a moment, registering the impotence of his sarcasm, and then went out, slamming the door behind him.

Walking up the street to the bodega, he twitched and muttered to himself in disgust. Was it unreasonable for a man of his age and station to expect some peace and solitude in the mornings? Was it too much to ask that he be allowed a few hours of quiet reflection at the start of a demanding day in court? He tried to calm himself down by thinking about his opening statement, but it was no good: his composure had been lost.

Joel was by and large a sanguine man. He regarded his sunny outlook not as an accident of temperament so much as a determined political stance. His favorite quotation—the one that he said he wanted carved on his gravestone—was Antonio Gramsci’s line about being a pessimist because of intelligence and an optimist by will. Lenny, alas, had a rare ability to penetrate the force field of his positive thinking. The very smell of the boy fucked with his internal weather: made him prey to itchy glooms and irritable regrets.

Twenty-seven years ago, when Lenny first came to live at Perry Street, Joel had been very high on the idea of subverting traditional models of family life. Adopting seven-year-old Lenny was no mere act of bourgeois philanthropy, he had maintained, but a subversive gesture—a vote for an enlightened, tribal system of childrearing that would one day supersede the repressive nuclear unit altogether. Lenny, however, had proved to be an uncooperative participant in the tribal program. As a child, he had tyrannized the household with violent tantrums. As an adolescent, he had dealt pot from the Perry Street stoop and repeatedly been caught shoplifting. At last, in adulthood, his petty delinquencies had blossomed into a range of drearily predictable and apparently irremediable dysfunctions. Joel would not have minded—or at least not have minded so much—had Lenny ever put his rebellious impulses to some principled use: run away to join the Sandinistas, say, or vandalized U.S. Army recruiting offices. But the boy’s waywardness had never served any cause other than his own fleeting satisfactions. Lenny’s not doing well, was Audrey’s preferred euphemism whenever he dropped out of some new, expensive college course, or got fired from the job that she had hustled for him at Habitat for Humanity, or set his hair alight while smoking crack, or was found having sex with one of the other residents at his rehab clinic. She chose to attribute such mishaps to the traumas of Lenny’s infancy. But Joel had had it with that psychological crap. The boy was a mendacious, indolent fuckup, that was all—a mortifying reminder of a failed experiment.

Coming back from the bodega, Joel worked up several elaborately snide remarks with which to taunt Lenny and Tanya, but on reentering the house, he found the kitchen empty. Colin and Julie had gone off on their sightseeing jaunt, and Lenny and Tanya had vanished upstairs, leaving their soggy-rimmed Starbucks cups on the kitchen table. Joel picked up the cups with a murmur of irritation and threw them into the trash. Then he switched on the coffee percolator and ambled into the living room to look at the papers.

At this hour of the morning, there was almost no natural light at the front of the house, and before sitting down, Joel had to wander about, turning on all the table lamps. Most of the residents on this eighteenth-century street had solved the problem of their low-ceilinged, north-facing parlors by tearing down the first-floor dividing walls and creating kitchen-dining floor-throughs. But Joel and Audrey sneered at the yuppie extravagance of these renovations. Neither of them was of the generation that had been taught to regard sunlit rooms as a birthright, and insofar as they were aware of interior design as an independent category of interest, they thought it a very silly business indeed. Over the years, they had assembled various artifacts and souvenirs pertaining to their travels and political involvements—an ANC flag signed by Oliver Tambo; a framed portrait of Joel, executed in muddy oils by a veteran of the Attica riots; a kilim depicting scenes from the Palestinian struggle—but there was not a single item of furniture here that could be said to represent a considered aesthetic choice. The love seat, upholstered in a nubby mustard tweed, had been given to them by Joel’s mother. The giant cherrywood cabinet and the collection of miniature china shoes it housed were an inheritance from Joel’s aunt Marion. A silver-plated andiron set, gamely arranged around the blocked-off fireplace, had come as barter payment from one of Joel’s clients.

Joel sat down now and, with practiced efficiency, began to fillet the papers for items relating to himself and today’s trial. The New York Times and the Washington Post had two more or less straightforward accounts of the case that mentioned his name, but without comment. In the New York Post, he found an editorial that made two passing references to him as a rent-a-radical with a long history of un-Americanism and as a man whose knee-jerk leftism is thankfully now all but extinct in today’s political climate.

He stared at the pile of newspapers for a moment and then took another pass, checking to see if he had missed anything. In a long career of defending pariahs, Joel had learned to expect and to treasure hostile public attention. It was the gauge by which he measured the importance and usefulness of his work. (Joel never feels so alive, Audrey liked to say, as when someone is wishing him dead.) Back in the 1980s when he had been defending al-Saddawi, the accused murderer of the Hasid leader Rabbi Kosse, protesters had organized rallies against him and put up posters around New York that read, Litvinoff: Self-Hating Jew. They had even made death threats against the children. By these standards, the animosity generated by the Hassani case had been disappointingly tame: one bomb threat to his uptown law office (deemed not credible by the police), a couple of people shouting traitor in the street. And one lousy mention in the Post. He looked at the editorial again. Well, they’d called him un-American; that was something.

He heard his wife coming down the stairs now. Come look, sweetie, he called out. "The Post is gunning for me!"

After a moment, Audrey appeared in the living room doorway—a thin woman of fifty-eight, with steel-colored hair and the dark, unblinking eyes of a woodland animal. She was wearing a denim skirt and a T-shirt printed with the slogan One Nation Under Surveillance.

Joel rustled his papers. They say I’m a rent-a-radical.

Bully for you, Audrey said.

Did you know Lenny and Tanya were here?

I saw them.

Somebody urinated on Tanya’s bed last night. Can you believe it? Who are these people they hang around with?

Audrey frowned, noticing that another of the living room’s floorboards had come loose. Oh, do shut up, Joel, she murmured.

Jadedness was Audrey’s default pose with her husband. She used it partly in the English manner, as a way of alluding to affection by manifesting its opposite, and partly as a strategy for asserting her privileged spousal status. The wives of great men must always be jealously guarding their positions against the encroachments of acolytes, and Audrey had decided long ago that if everybody else was going to guffaw at Joel’s jokes and roll over at his charm, her distinction—the mark of her unparalleled intimacy with the legend—would be a deadpan unimpressibility. Oh, I forgot! she often drawled when Joel was embarking on one of his exuberant anecdotes. It’s all about you, isn’t it?

What do you want for breakfast? she asked now.

I’ll have a bialy, Joel said.

Audrey looked at him.

What? he said, glancing up after a moment. I have to have carbohydrates sometimes. You want me to go to court on a bowl of yogurt?

Audrey went into the kitchen.

I can’t find the bialys, she called out after a moment. Are you sure we have any?

Joel looked up from the papers. Oh, come on! I thought you were going to get some. I asked you yesterday. He smacked his hand against his newspaper. Jesus!

Audrey came back out to the living room and gazed at him archly. It’s a tragedy, I know. How about a boiled egg?

I want a bialy, goddammit.

Audrey stood and waited.

All right, forget it, he said sulkily. Gimme the egg.

He went upstairs now to shower and get dressed. In the kitchen, Audrey poured herself coffee and put a pan of water on the stove. She was about to return to the living room to look at the New York Post editorial when she heard shouting from above. Putting down her cup, she went to the foot of the stairs. Joel? There was no reply. With a sigh, she trekked up to the top floor landing, where she found her husband raging over an empty can of black shoe polish.

Does no one but me ever replace anything in this house? he demanded. Would it be too much to ask that someone else bought fucking shoe polish around here?

Lenny must have finished it, Audrey said calmly. He used it the other night, when he went to that black tie thing with Tanya.

The black tie detail was an unnecessary provocation, Joel thought. Audrey had an ignoble habit of dropping Lenny in it, so she might then rescue him.

Jesus! he shouted, taking the bait anyway. What are we running here, a hostel for the unemployed? Next time, tell him to get his own.

Those aren’t the right shoes for that suit anyway, Audrey said, gesturing at the brogues that Joel had been intending to polish. You wear the other ones with the blue suit.

She turned away in silent triumph and went back downstairs.

Shortly afterward, Joel followed her. With a dish towel tied around his neck to protect his shirt and tie, he ate the egg she had made for him and drank the coffee. Then he took her in his arms and kissed her. I love you, he said.

Yeah, yeah. Audrey helped him on with his coat and walked him out to the front step. Do good, she called, as he set off down the street.

Without turning around, or breaking stride, Joel raised a hand in acknowledgment. Buy some bialys, he called back.

In the taxi over to Brooklyn, Joel’s head pains grew worse. The metal object that was lodged in his skull had shifted to his frontal lobe now and seemed to be intent on boring its way out through his forehead. The cab driver was heavy on the brake, and the jerky motion of the car as it stopped and started its way through the heavy traffic on the bridge made him moan out loud. By the time he got out at Cadman Plaza, he was dangerously close to throwing up.

Standing on the curb, waiting for his nausea to subside, he felt a hand on his arm. He looked up to see his paralegal, Kate, peering at him with concern.

Are you okay, Joel?


You look a little pale.

I have a headache, is all. Through the veil of his pain he registered a smattering of acne around Kate’s mouth and a smear of red lipstick on her teeth.

You want me to get you an aspirin or something? Kate asked.

Joel shook his head. I’ve taken about fifty Tylenol in the last twenty-four hours. They’re making it worse, I think.

How about some water? She brought out a plastic bottle from her bag.

Joel smiled wanly as he took the bottle. Dear, homely, reliable Kate. How well she looked after him! He had been doubtful, when he first hired her, about taking on such an unattractive girl. He had worried that it would be dispiriting to have to confront her tree-trunk legs and her abominable complexion every morning. But Kate’s devotedness and efficiency had more than made up for her aesthetic failings. And after so many years of complicated and time-consuming office imbroglios with female employees, there was, he had to admit, something rather soothing about not wanting to fuck his assistant.

Okay, he said, handing the bottle back. I’m good.

They went in through the glass doors of the Federal Courthouse and deposited their cell phones with a lady in a booth before joining the line at the security checkpoint. One of the uniformed men standing at the X-ray machine raised his arms in greeting. Heeeey! Here he is! How ya doing, Mr. Litvinoff?

Joel stared at him in mock consternation. What happened, Lew? He took off his watch and placed it, along with his keys, in a plastic tray on the conveyor belt. They didn’t get rid of you yet? I thought for sure they would have fired you by now.

Lew laughed heartily—a little more heartily than was strictly credible, it seemed to Joel. That was all right. Caring enough to fake mirth was its own sort of compliment. Joel passed through the metal detector and picked up his briefcase, keys, and watch on the other side.

A big one today, right? Lew said.

Joel shrugged. They’re all big, Lew, they’re all big. I’ll see you later.

All right, Mr. Litvinoff, take it easy.

In the elevator going up to the courtroom, Joel found himself pressed tightly against a young blonde. Well! He chuckled. My lucky day. The woman looked away disdainfully. He felt a moment’s befuddlement at the failure of his gallantry and then an urge to take the woman by the scruff of her neck and give her a good slap. But he pulled himself together and went on chatting to Kate in a loud, cheerful voice until they reached their floor.

Joel’s cocounsel, Buchman, a pink-faced kid from Virginia, had already arrived in the courtroom. Joel nodded hello to the prosecution team and stopped to say a few words to the court stenographer, a nice old gargoyle called Helen. Then he sat down and chatted with Buchman. Soon the jury filed in, emanating the usual stagy solemnity of citizens fulfilling their civic duty. Joel put his elbows on the desk in front of him and cradled his chin in his hands. He was feeling old. The elevator woman’s rejection had bothered him. His head was throbbing. The long day’s work loomed before him like a cliff

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What people think about The Believers

76 ratings / 47 Reviews
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Reader reviews

  • (2/5)
    Ugh. I want to like this book but it’s a little too trite and it trades too easily in too many cliches. For example: the put upon, neglected daughter with weight and infertility issues, has an affair, while the adopted son with drug issues struggles with his demons, while the other socialist daughter channels her dissolution with social activism into the study of Judaism. And their mother is a terrible bitch. Any three of those thoughts could be fully developed into a better book than the one I just read.
  • (3/5)
    A book about a disfunctional family. Good read.
  • (3/5)
    I really enjoyed Heller's writing, especially the detailed and nuanced descriptions she gave throughout the book. Yet it was a struggle to continue to read page after page of Audrey's, the family matriarch, hypocritical angry tirades. I was thankful that Audrey did not go through some revelation that changed her into a caring soul, for it was not in her nature for such a transformation. It was through Audrey's daughters that the reader gets the satisfaction of seeing the characters making change and moving forward in their lives.
  • (4/5)
    Three and a half stars, worth rounding up to 4. Review to come later.
  • (3/5)
    Heller takes a swipe at the wealthy, the radical left, religion, and marriage in this story of a highly dysfunctional family. Heller has the ability to write beautifully but she couldn't make me connect with the characters in this one. And the big secret? Not such a big deal after all.
  • (4/5)
    I enjoyed this. Granted, it's not as funny as Everything You Know (though the sex scenes are excellent) and not as 'classic' as Notes. You can read the whole thing just as a story and then it ties up nicely at the end with echoes back to the start of the novel & all the character's ends complement each other.
  • (4/5)
    Two of the women in this novel are among the most abrasive and angry characters a reader is likely to encounter. And although key icons in this work, the men in the book are either not available or not interesting enough to compete with the female characters. The one male who does participate is irreparably damaged. If you can imagine Margaret Thatcher going a few rounds with Golda Meir, that would describe the intensity of argumentation between a mother and one of her daughters. A second daughter is not in their league, knows it, and turns into an overweight social worker. This atheist household is so toxic that organized religion is viewed by one character as a viable escape. These characters live their lives with progressive leftist politics as background music and the book can be extremely perceptive in its New York City street and political scenes. The narrative is driven by an unthinkable action of the father in the family that changes everyone's lives. For those who have spent time in progressive or feminist politics, this is a wonderfully intelligent work-- with great dialogue--that probes how one family reacts to stress, especially when that family is among the leaders of New York's left-leaning community. But what's unforgettable is the acidic qualities of two of the women, and particularly the mother.
  • (3/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    I found this to be surprisingly clunky -- uneven dialog that often didn't ring true, and though the premise of the characters was interesting they kept reverting to type and making me roll my eyes. For all that, I never lost reading momentum and I actually enjoyed it all the way through. The story was good, the ideas were fun, and it never quite scared me off. Makes me really want to read What Was She Thinking, though, because I've heard such uniformly good things about it -- now I'm curious how that one hit where this one misses.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (5/5)
    I've just this minute finished this extraordinary novel, so will need more time to properly gather my thoughts. Although I would recommend it without reservation, I'm not sure I can really say I enjoyed it, so much as admired it enormously.

    For the first half I found Audrey's relentless snarking and self-absorbed ranting quite tedious. But by the end I felt delighted to see there was some light on the horizon for her. Equally, at first, every paragraph inside Karla's head, or worse, her marriage, felt somewhat interminable. But as she finally began to emerge from the pitiful self-deprecation, I was rooting for her, and for Rosa, and would happily have followed them both on for another novel.

    More than anything, what really kept me going was the sheer force and verve of the prose. I can't think of when I last read writing I've admired this much, or felt moved to make oodles of notes on.
  • (3/5)
    I was kind of let down by this book...I thought the writing would be a bit more fast paced and sardonic and I thought that the way it ended was a bit too open for me. At its best moments, you realize that it succeeds of telling the story of family from even before conception, the move from England to America, the raising of children and copying with infidelities and your now adult children in all their oddities, religious pilgrimages, and drug addictions. It's a little bit about political activism and a great deal about life choices and I did learn some things on the way to the end *particularly about Orthodox Jewish rituals. It's just that it wasn't saying anything too profound and I could already pretty much predict what was going to happen..I'd much rather have a book that surprises me.

    It's an ok read but not really life changing or profound. I seem to be reading a great deal of these types of books lately. :/
  • (4/5)
    Very well written in the Jane Austen tradition: biting satire and insightful analysis of affluent liberal mores and hypocrisies. It can feel pretty ungenerous at times (like reality TV, this isn't a family you'd want to hang out with), and seemed like it was trying too hard to show how rich people conspire to make themselves miserable, but it was brought together in an interesting and effective way. Above all, some fine prose writing.
  • (3/5)
    Zoe Heller can sure write a good story, and that's what kept me reading this book in spite of the largely two-dimensional, somewhat unbelievable characters. I found it hard, for example, to reconcile the Audrey introduced in the first chapter with the woman she becomes when we meet her again about 35 years later in chapter 2. Not her best work, I think.
  • (3/5)
    Although this is an interesting story I found it tended towards depressing. However the end was very good and appropriate and slightly lifted things.
  • (5/5)
    Aaaah. 5 stars. Wonderful. Sharp, funny, tight. One of the best of the year.
  • (5/5)
    This was excellent – an enjoyable book on many levels. It’s a look at what happens when you take your ideological cues from other people, and then those people turn out to be fallible themselves, forcing you to make your own mind up about what you stand for. It’s a fascinating look at Orthodox Judaism - both educational and startling by turns. Last but not least it’s a lively and amusing tale about a family with a fantastically objectionable mother. And few authors write about objectionable people quite as well and as entertainingly as Zoe Heller.
  • (3/5)
    The Believers is a story about an extremely dysfunctional family, the Litvinoffs, made up of two emotionally abusive parents, Joel and Audrey, and three very maladjusted kids, Rosa, Karla, and Lenny. (Rosa and Karla are named for the leftist heroes Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Marx; Lenny was adopted.) The parents picture themselves as paragons of socialist ideology, which to them seems to include a willingness to take drugs in front of their children, deprecating the kids with gutter language, parading their self-hating anti-Semitism like a badge of honor, spewing contempt and anger as an expression of their cynicism, and eschewing compassion and kindness as a bourgeois weakness. In other words, they are absolutely abhorrent, repulsive people.Upon reaching adulthood, the children are a mess, and as their memories of growing up are revealed, it is not difficult to see why. Rosa flits from one trendy ideological commitment to another, in search of an instant moral code that will enable her to live a life “consonant with her convictions” and have a higher power of some sort define who she should be. Karla is in a loveless marriage, the pain of which she dulls with food, and then hates herself (with help from her parents) for being fat. And Lenny is a mooching, worthless drug addict, whose attempts to get his life back on track are consistently undermined by Audrey, who fights not having [abusive] control over any of her children.The story begins when Joel has a stroke, which thankfully reduces his conscious moments in the plot. The rest of the book reveals how the other Litvinoffs will handle the departure of their figurehead, and what, if anything, they will make of their lives.A confrontation between Rosa and Audrey encapsulates the underlying theme of this story. Audrey is excoriating Rosa for her latest ideological foray into Orthodox Judaism. Rosa tries to argue to her mother that she feels the truth has been revealed to her:"But Mom, if it’s the truth, it has to be right for me, doesn’t it? If you thought you’d found the truth about something, would you walk away from it just because it wasn’t the truth you particularly wanted or expected to find?Audrey shrugged. ‘I can’t answer that. The truth would never reveal itself to me in that way.’…Rosa turned back to Audrey impatiently. ‘But what if it did, Mom?’ she asked. ‘What if the truth did reveal itself to you in that way?’…Audrey turned to her. ‘You want to know what I’d do if the truth revealed itself to me and it wasn’t the truth I wanted to find?’‘Yes.’Audrey smiled. ‘I’d reject it.’”Discussion: This is a book about emotionally damaged people who are drawn to totalitarian systems of belief so that they are personally absolved of individual responsibility for their choices. They use the belief systems to justify their dysfunctional behaviors; when the quality of their lives suffer, rather than look to themselves, they find fault with their ideological crutches and go in search of others. The characters in this story never learn any lessons about themselves, in spite of well-meaning people who occasionally try to enlighten them. Rather, they are all drawn deeper into their pathologies, until, at the end, they are veritable parodies of people. The difficulty I have is how to evaluate a book in which all the characters are detestable to some degree and none of them are able to change. This does not necessarily reflect a lack of writing skill on the part of the author; indeed, it may be a tribute to her talent. Still, it would be difficult for me to say to anyone “you will enjoy this book.”As an introduction to an interview with Zoe Heller on NPR, Maureen Corrigan had this to say:"By refusing to pander, to serve up even one likeable main character, The Believers... raises implicit questions about our readerly expectations about fiction. You may not make new imaginary friends by reading The Believers but, as consolation, this smart, caustic novel reminds readers that fictional friendship can be overrated.”I guess I don’t agree with that. Evaluation: Why would you want to spend time reading about this horrible family? Audrey has to be one of the most execrable characters in literature I have ever encountered. Joel isn’t far behind her. Lenny is detestable, Rosa is an annoying hypocrite, and Karla only looks good in comparison with the others. You keep reading because you fully expect the characters to have some sort of epiphanies but in fact, all but Karla just get worse. It may be good writing, but to me that did not mitigate the painful experience of being with these people! My recommendation? Run in the other direction.
  • (2/5)
    A disappointment. Not a dramatic disappointment, but a book that I was expecting to love. Audrey is poorly-drawn and the denouement depressingly predictable. Felt like she was trying to recapture the frisson of notes from a scandal without ever quite getting there.
  • (3/5)
    I looked forward to this more than I enjoyed reading it. I found the main character of Audrey unbearable; she was so nasty that she felt like a stereotype. Zoe Heller has written far more subtle, far better books. If you haven't read any of her work, don't start with this one.
  • (5/5)
    As radical political activist and lawyer Joel Litvinoff lies in a coma after a major stroke, his unusual family threatens to begin it's own breakdown. Joel's wife Audrey, always razor-tongued and opinionated, must not only deal with Joel's absence from her life but also come to terms with the nasty secret that her husband has been hiding from her for years. Meanwhile, Joel and Audrey's adopted son Lenny, a wastrel and drug addict, is working his usual game of manipulation and subterfuge on the rest of the family, seemingly unconcerned that his father lies incapacitated and dying. Daughter Rosa, once a socialist and activist like her parents, has decided to begin studies as an Orthodox Jew, much to the chagrin and disappointment of her antitheist mother who takes her conversion as a personal affront. Rounding out the bunch is daughter Karla, an obese and unhappy woman who is struggling not only to find fulfillment, but also to become pregnant at the behest of her uncaring and oblivious husband. As days turn to weeks with no news or improvement from Joel, situations begin to heat to a rapid boil, and each member of the family comes to their own moral precipice and must decide whether to let go and jump off, or to hang on to the things that are pulling them apart. Both comically astute and morally penetrating, The Believers is Heller at her skillful and avant-garde best.A few years back, I had the unexpected pleasure of picking up my first book written by Zoë Heller. The book was What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal, and even with my relative inexperience at writing reviews at that time, I knew this author was someone to take seriously. When the opportunity came for me to read and review this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, I jumped at the chance. The book certainly didn't disappoint, and not only did I find it really hard to tear myself away from the pages of the story, I read the book in two sittings.First of all, I felt that in her creation of the Litvinoffs, Heller does an amazing job of capturing the idiosyncrasies of a modern family in turmoil. Each character was like the point on a star, twinkling away in disorder and confusion. Although most of the characters had a somewhat repulsive outlook on life, they were the kind of characters you love to hate and whose antics you ingest feverishly in order to see just how bizarre and recalcitrant they will become. Each character was remarkably detailed and original, and for a work of fiction, these people were crazily realistic creatures. I think Audrey fascinated me the most. She was so scathing and fierce about everyone and everything that she came in contact with. I cringed in embarrassment and discomfort whenever she opened her mouth, but Heller had a way of making her so intriguing and interesting that you couldn't help but be completely absorbed by the woman. Audrey was a true original and although I was mostly scandalized by her behavior, I was unendingly entertained by her. Although I chose to focus mainly on the qualities of Audrey, I was truly impressed by all of the characters in this book. I didn't really like most of them but I felt that there was enough character dissection and detail in their creation to be able to understand what made them tick and why they acted as they did. I also liked the fact that Heller doesn't spend a lot of time worrying over the acceptability of her characters' beliefs and morals. There are no apologies here; these characters are who they are with no holes barred and no reservations.I thought there was a huge amount of social commentary and irony here. One of the greatest ironies in the story was the fact that although the characters (mainly Audrey) constantly spouted socialist rhetoric and worked from that mindset, in their personal worlds people were far from equal and the common man in society was somewhat peevishly denigrated. It seemed as though they aspired to much loftier ideals than they could ever attain. This came up repeatedly throughout the story in their complaints about female doctors, their opinions on the hopeless futures of children of minorities and their unhappiness with their subjugated Latin housekeepers. They would walk through the story believing that they were on the side of the working man, the minority and society, but in reality their idealism was stripped away by their everyday experiences and actions. This book was simply a satirical masterpiece and I marveled at the way Heller created such meaningful social commentary in a tale full of miscreants.I also thought that the research Heller did for this book was interesting. In the subplot involving Rosa, the reader is given a deep and extensive look into the tenants and rituals of Orthodox Judaism. I am very green to this subject but I felt that Heller did a wonderful job of explaining and highlighting these concepts for me. The book also also had some hysterically funny moments. The humor in this book was much like the characters: scathing and searing. I found myself snorting with amusement at these people and their absurdities and idealism. I think Heller has an incredible gift in the executions of her characters, and although I have never really found any of her characters to be likable, I do find them all engrossingly cruel and wickedly amusing.If you are the type of reader who doesn't necessarily have to like the characters in a book in order to be fascinated with them, then this is definitely a book you need to read. Those who enjoy works of great satire and irony will find much to amuse themselves here as well. After completing this book, I must conclude that Heller is a writer at the top of her form. I am a huge fan of her work and can't wait to see what she offers her readers next. A highly original and entertaining read, highly recommended.
  • (3/5)
    Socialist Jewish family secure in their beliefs suffer crisis that makes each one examine if their beliefs are working for them USA Manhattan 1990s-2000s
  • (4/5)
    Joel Litvinoff, a famous left-wing New York Jewish lawyer, lies in a coma. This is the story of his highly dysfunctional family, focussing on his ogress wife Audrey and his two daughters bright, rebellious Rosa and dumpy doormat Karla. The characters are all vivid and generally credible, although it is hard to believe that Audrey has any friends at all - she is just so appallingly rude to everyone, all of the time. Heller works best at the motives people have to change their lives. While Audrey is unable to break out of her image - once feisty, now overbearing, Karla tenatively moves away from the hard left towards orthodox Judaism. Karla, meanwhile, struggles to find a solution to an unhappy marriage. Most of the decisions we make about the important things in our lives are instinctive. We may weigh up the pros and cons but we go with our guts. Heller is great and dissecting the thought processes of her protaganists as they wrestle with their problems. There is some lampooning of the left here as well. It's not really as successful, because not very original. Many of the activists are engaged in the kind of holier than thou arguments that charcterise university students. These have been satirised so many times that Heller can't really do anything much new with the material. But this is a minor criticism in a book which has sharp writing and plenty of insights into the human character.
  • (3/5)
    I enjoyed this a lot more than I'd expected to: despite the shiny gold cover, it's not fluffy "chick lit", but an absorbing and stylish satire. Most of the characters are utterly horrid - particularly Audrey - but they also feel real. I think, though, that there's too much going on for one book, with the result that it comes across as a bit superficial at times: the stories of Karla and Rosa alone would make a novel, and I would have liked to read more about them.
  • (4/5)
    Really enjoyed this book about a disfunctional New York family. The wife, Audrey Litvinoff appears to be a truly awful mother, railing against her children and everybody else around her. However, as you read more of the book it becomes obvious that she is struggling with her own sense of being and behind the mask is a woman who is trying to hold her marriage and family together depite its obvious flaws. A good read, well written.
  • (3/5)
    The Believers, by Zoe HellerOne of the unanticipated joys of viewing a harrowing movie filled with bizarre behavior and dysfunctional characters is the clean wave of normalcy that descends upon the moviegoer as he/she trudges up the murky walkway toward the sweet light of day. "I may have my moments," the viewer muses, "but that woman was CRAZY." I experienced a similar feeling when I completed the last page of Zoe Heller's "The Believers." I approached the rest of the day with light-footed elation, deliciously free of the self-imposed angst borne by each member of Heller's beleaguered NYC family, the Litvinoffs. The patriarch of Heller's fictional family is Joel Litvinoff, a self-described radical leftist attorney and civil rights worker who attained his national celebrity through tireless work on numerous high-profile legal defense cases. Heller reveals the least about Joel, who suffers a major stroke in the first pages of the book and remains in a coma thereafter, but that is probably to his advantage, since the more you know about this Manhattan family, the less you like them. Joel's battles against the establishment may have originally been fueled by altruistic ardor, but Heller hints that Joel has become enamored with his own celebrity in recent years. He needs constant public attention to energize his leftwing passions and enhance his cult-like status, a status that in turn facilitates his favorite hobby: he's a womanizer. One would like to feel sorry for his wife, Audrey, but she has quite a few flaws of her own. It's highly probable that she married Joel to escape the dismal fate endured by her English parents, who live in a tatty Chertsey apartment that smells of boiled cabbage and cat pee. No longer the attractive and saucy feminista of her youth, Audrey has become abrasive, foul-mouthed, and bitter in middle age. Her sole friend, Jean, endures verbal attacks from Audrey that would incite bitch-slaps from anyone less saintly. The Litvinoff children are no sweethearts, either. The oldest child, Karla, is an overweight social worker who is maddeningly weak-spined and complacent in the face of outrageous verbal abuse from Audrey and rude inattention from her husband. She may as well print "Kick Me" on her behind. Karla's sister, Rosa, is a stiff, self-righteous do-gooder who has turned to helping urban girls in Harlem after becoming disenchanted with Castro's Cuba, where she lived for a time. As Rosa's job at "Girlpower" slowly sours (in truth, she doesn't like the girls, not even one), she begins to flirt with Orthodox Judaism, a move that is sure to inflame Audrey, a militant atheist. The youngest Litvinoff, an adoptee named Lenny, is a drug-using lay-about who somehow manages to wheedle money and favors from Audrey in inverse relation to his bad behavior; the more outrageous his transgressions, the more Audrey gives him, a fact that rankles his sisters and consigns him to the status of permanent manchild. "The Believers" can be read as a scathing social satire, but Heller's underlying themes are nothing to smirk at. Each character is trapped inside a forced persona that he or she can't seem to shed. Joel has become so dependent upon national notoriety that he is determined to chase it to the point of exhaustion (and stroke). Audrey has played the role of adoring wife and quirky iconoclast for so long that she is totally at a loss as to how to define herself when Joel's transgressions come to light. Karla is boxed into a social work job and a miserable marriage because Joel and Audrey convinced her at an early age that she was "the nurturer" in the family. Rosa has modeled her adult life after her father, only to discover that his ideology has left her adrift and longing for something more. Lenny has allowed himself to sink into a destructive co-dependency with his mother that threatens to kill him unless he cuts and runs altogether. Each family member seeks an external anchor, a belief system that will reveal his or her raison d'etre once it is adopted and internalized. Heller subtly explores whether such a quest is an effective strategy or a harmful barrier to true self realization. Each Litvinoff resolves his or her existential crisis differently, and in refusing to reveal her bias one way or another, Heller forces her readers to address the issue for themselves. "The Believers" is a tragicomic and thought-provoking book that will leave you feeling relieved that you're not headed to the Litvinoff household for dinner any time soon.
  • (4/5)
    I had a hard time putting this down. Like Olive Kitteredge, I really disliked the main character Audrey yet I couldn't stop reading to find out what happened. All the characters were complex and weird and they each had a breakthrough of sorts by novels end. Why titled the believers? Because the parents were avid atheists and they changed their mind throughout? I have to think about it some more.
  • (5/5)
    One of my absolute favorites. Read it twice and bought for friends. Usually won't finish a book in which every single character is mean,unhappy, confused and unlikeable. Heller makes you want to see where the misery is going to take all of them. Excellent ending.......
  • (3/5)
    Well-written though this book may have been, I found the characters and also the story to be annoying at best, extremely frustrating at worst. I give Heller credit for once again creating a rich, layered protagonist -- I loved her 'Notes on a Scandal' and was hoping that 'The Believers' would not disappoint. But it did - I just found the characters to be so unlikeable, their thoughts and actions so distasteful, that it was hard to enjoy the book. I was thoroughly engaged, I don't deny that Heller has written an intelligent, witty and brutally honest novel about contemporary society - I just didn't like it. Audrey is a shrew - mean-spirited, self-righteous and completely void of any moral compass. When her husband of forty years falls into a coma and the stories and secrets of his life come to light, she grows increasingly nasty. Her children are another story. At first I felt sorry for them, raised by two leftist ideologues who probably never should have had children. But as their stories were illuminated I began to feel antagonistic towards them - Rosa, the priggish 'new Jew' whose exploration of her inherited faith is full of bitterness; Karla, the timid parental defender with no self-image and a fear of happiness; and Lenny, the adopted drug addict whose master manipulation of family and situation was the most accurate metaphor for the family's problems. I just didn't like them. I'm not someone who needs to identify with a character in order to enjoy a book - I read for the sake of the writing more than for the story or its' characters. And I do believe that Heller has written a masterful novel about the nature of family, and more keenly the very nature of individual life. But at the end of the day I found 'The Believers' hard to enjoy, I wanted it to be over so I wouldn't have to know these people anymore, so I wouldn't have to think about them. So I suppose Heller succeeded in her ultimate task of capturing humanity at its worst ... but really, that's more than a little off-putting.
  • (4/5)
    at first i did not enjoy the book. i was not interested in the characters or their concerns. but, it started to grow on me the more i got into the book. Heller presents another compelling but totally unlikable female character, who is mean and combative with everyone in her life except her drug addicted adoptive son. the reactions of all the characters to the debilitating stroke of the woman's husband forms the core of the novel.
  • (3/5)
    "The Believers", Believe It or NotInteresting book with radicalism, religion and dysruntional family dynamics thrown in.From the first you are drawn in to the story of the life of Joel and Audrey and their grown children, with Joel's stroke playing the back drop.The changes they all go through in their quest for understanding, love and learning to stand on their own makes an interesting read.
  • (2/5)
    I really did not like this novel.The story of Audrey and Joel Livtinoff. Going from their first date, 40 years later where they have 3 children, and JOel is in a coma.A really found no sympathy with Audrey, his suffering wife, or Rosa, the "holier than thou" daughter.Actually, the characters were so awful and annoying, I sort of relished the sadness they were experiencing.Disappointing.