The Believers, by Zoë Heller


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The last two posts here have looked at IMPAC-shortlisted books that have featured the rather common theme of “troubled farm youths cause violent mayhem with the locals”, to paraphrase wording that John Self used in his comment regarding Out Backwards.

Two other IMPAC finalists (The Believers and Netherland) come from a genre at the other end of the rural-urban spectrum. If I can be permitted to echo John’s phrasing I’d call it “dysfunctional family faces challenges in New York City”. Like the confused farmboy coming of age template, this is one that has an extensive and honorable history that has attracted some very, very talented authors. Say Edith Wharton and Henry James — each wrote so many New York stories (not to mention novels), often involving this theme, that the NYRB has published excellent “New York story” collections for both. Then there is Philip Roth in numerous novels (probably most notably American Pastoral, but as recently as Indignation) and Saul Bellow (say, Humboldt’s Gift and Mr. Sammler’s Planet). More recently, Cynthia Ozick in Heir to the Glimmering World. And as an indication that the tradition is bound to continue, Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin, published last year (a year after the book under review), has attracted much critical approval, including a National Book Award.

The fact that I can put that list together (and have read all those books) is a testimony not just to my personal interest in it, but also to the viability of the theme. Obviously the “mayhem” that New York injects into families produces a variety of responses. Having said that, I would add that Zoë Heller’s The Believers and Ozick’s book have the most in common of those that I have mentioned — and that this one, for me at least, does come second in the comparison. Still, it is a very readable book and certainly a change from introverted farm lads disrupting the rural world around them.

Joel Litvinoff is a 72-year-old radical lawyer who has spent his life defending unpopular clients, mainly of the left-wing variety although he also represented a Mafia don. As the book proper opens, he is preparing to head off to court to defend Mohammed Hassani, the only member of the Schenectady Six (for those who know their post 9/11 New York history, the real-life version is the Lackawanna Six) who has not made a plea bargain to the terrorism charges that resulted from their visit to an al-Qaeda training camp in 1998. Joel suffers a stroke as he heads into court and remains in a coma for the rest of the book, but that set-up effectively establishes the circumstances in which his wife, two daughters and adopted son have lived their lives. The novel is about the chaos that this overwhelming presence has produced in those four lives.

We have already met his wife, Audrey, in a wonderful prologue that recounted their first meeting and whirlwind decision to get married. They first set eyes on each other at a leftish party in 1962 at a bed-sit just off Gower Street in Bloomsbury — Joel is a visiting star American, fresh from participating in the fledgling civil rights movement. Audrey is a wimpy typist, there with a date in whom she has little interest. Joel flirts with her, invites himself along on a visit to her working-class parents in Chertsey the next day, sleeps with her that night and a few days later the two are on their way to New York. Audrey may have escaped a boring existence in England but those circumstances suggest that the 40 years that have passed before the book proper starts have not been entirely pleasant.

She has, in fact, a coping strategy that has developed over those decades:

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 encroachment 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?”

Joel is definitely a leftie star (Judy Collins comes to his hospital bedside to sing to him; Jesse Jackson also visits) and Audrey has developed her own defensive strategy. The children of radical stars have a much more difficult time coping.

Heller does structure the characters of the three Litvinoff children along lines that are familiar to those who know “the children of the left” (I should note that I was a late sixties leftie, not quite a decade behind Joel and Audrey, so I have some experience with the types — which was certainly an attractive feature of the book for me). Rosa is probably the most interesting — she enrolled completely in her parent’s politics (and antitheism), went to Commie camp as a youth and in 2002 is just back from four years in Cuba. Unfortunately, in terms of of family politics and unity, the last couple of years there effectively destroyed her lifelong, family-taught ideology. Shortly after returning she wandered into an upper West-side Orthodox synagogue and (re)discovered her Jewish roots: “She was part of this. She had always been part of this.” It never occurred to Rosa not to tell her parents of her conversion:

Audrey’s initial response had been one of derision. She sang snatches of “Hava Nagila” and asked Rosa if she intended to marry one of those smelly old men with the payess. It was Joel who was nakedly enraged. That Rosa had succumbed, however temporarily, to the idiocy of faith was terrible enough, he told her. That she should have chosen Judaism in which to dabble could only be construed as an act of parricidal malice. “This is bullshit!” he yelled at one point. “I know you! You are constitutionally incapable of buying into this kind of fairy tale. You never even believed in the tooth fairy, for Christ’s sake.”

Rosa had to smile at that. She was not so swept away that she could not see the high comedy of this spiritual seduction: a Litvinoff daughter, a third-generation atheist, an enemy of all forms of magical thinking, wandering into synagogue one day and finding her inner Jew. But there it was.

If Rosa’s is the confrontational response, her siblings’ coping behaviors are much more defensive. Karla has kept herself shyly out of the way all her life, battling (unsuccessfully) weight problems throughout since eating is her defense mechanism. A hospital social worker (if you can’t lead radical change, being in a caring role is an acceptable alternative in this family), she has spent the last two years not getting pregnant by her union leader husband. She’s not too upset by that, as she doesn’t really want the child.

Lenny, the adopted brother (his father was killed when a bomb he was making exploded, his mother is serving a long sentence for a botched armed robbery), is Audrey’s favorite, precisely because he is not hers and Joel’s — rather he is a (selfish) symbol of her own caring. Alas, this produced a spoiled child who has turned into a manipulative, drug-consuming (on money his mother gives him) 32-year-old. He has been to rehab five times and is now back on drugs. He is as remote from his adoptive father’s politics as one could possibly be.

The bulk of the book is about how these four try to come to terms with each other — and with the destructive personal legacies that they have been left by Joel, whose comatose presence is always a factor in the book. Those who have read Zeller’s well-regarded What Was She Thinking? Notes On A Scandal will be expecting a plot twist to set up the conclusion of the book and they will not be disappointed. Heller is a very accomplished storyteller — and an equally adept writer — so the novel proceeds at a very brisk pace.

That in fact is probably what produced my ambivalent response to the book. The set-up of the circumstances (which does take up close to a quarter of the book) is so good, that it is hard not to be let down by the remainder — everyone likes a good first act, but it should not be the best of the four or five that comprise the play. As the novel goes on, it seems to become increasingly inward looking, with intriguing ideas that were introduced in the early pages simply not being persued. And when the final page is turned, the feeling is “good story, but not much here to walk away with”.

Having said that, there is nothing the matter with a well-written story, as Heller proved with Notes on a Scandal. I just can’t help wondering, however, after that outstanding opening quarter of the book, if there wasn’t a much better book possible here. I’ll certainly be going back to Heller in the future — if she ever does find a way to maintain the strength of that opening quarter, it is going to be an exceptional book.

(NOTE: Having mentioned Netherland in this review, I should note that I will not be reviewing it here — I read it twice just before starting this blog and am not up to a third read. As well, Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes has a far better review here than any that I could write.)

11 Responses to “The Believers, by Zoë Heller”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    No, I tried, I was expecting to – but I could not like this one at all. Was it the Curse of the Second Novel? I thought Notes on a Scandal was terriific, and the film starring Judi Dench was a rare example of a film as good as the book.


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: While I think I liked this novel better than you did, I kept hoping throughout it that it would make that turn into “terrific” territory. Alas, it never did — I don’t feel that I wasted my time, the characters are interesting, but it seems it would have been easy to make them so much better. And I did feel the plot twist towards the end was a copout, which I didn’t want to mention in the review.


  3. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    I must get hold of this one. I thought Notes from a Scandal was excellent – and raised more questions than it answered – and yes, as Lisa says, the film was as good as the book.

    You are obviously slightly equivocal about it – yes, its not good to find the first act is the best one. I think I’ll go and reserve it at my local library rather than purchasing it!


  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: I’d say trying the library is a good idea — if you don’t like the first 50 pages, I’m pretty sure you won’t like the rest of the book. In many ways, I think it is more ambitious than Notes for a Scandal, which might explain my ambiguous response. I don’t think Heller succeeds quite as well in filling out her story (or characters) in this one. Still, she is an accomplished writer and it is a worthwhile read — I always have a problem with books that I think should have achieved more than they do, even when what has been published is quite acceptable.


  5. Shawna Says:

    Hi Kevin, I decided it might be time to stop in leave a comment. I’ve been lurking on your blog for months now and have enjoyed every minute. Especially since, it seems, we share very similar reading tastes – although your knowledge is much more expansive than mine. I hope you are doing well! Have you read much by Chaim Potok?


  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Hi Shawna: Thanks for coming out of the virtual shadows. 🙂 I not only have not read any Chaim Potok, I had to google him as I did not recognize the name. And have to admit that I did not recognize any of his works when I did, although he obviously sold quite a few books. Thanks for alerting me to him.


  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I don’t think I’ve read a single simply positive review of this one. It attracts caveats.

    Part of the problem seems to be that when you’re in territory as well trodden as this you really do need to be very good indeed. As it is, it sounds entertaining but little more, and to revisit this kind of material I’d personally want more.

    Sometimes interesting just isn’t enough.

    Anyway, thanks Kevin, I think I’ll pass but it was an interesting review and I value reviews that help me pass on a book just as much (sometimes more) as those that help convince me to read one.


  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: This one is certainly a candidate for passing. The only recommendation that I could make is that, since I know you are reading Proust, there are elements here which show how social convention plays out a century later. Alas, Heller does not do it very well — using Wharton or James as a contrast to Proust is a much better option.


  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’m underread on both James and Wharton, I shall use this as an exhortation and reminder to read more of them Kevin.

    Frankly, exhortations and reminders to read more James and Wharton are always valuable.


  10. Lija Says:

    I’m still on the fence about whether I’ll end up reading this or not. Another blogger I read mentioned that she had trouble with this because she found the characters utterly unlikeable – is that part of what made you stop caring, or did you not mind that so much?


  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lija: I would not say I found the characters unlikable — “not very interesting” would be a better summation of my response. And that meant that I did struggle with keepings various story lines straight as the book went on. The result was a read that was enjoyable, but not particularly memorable.


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