by Zoe Heller
352 pages, Harper
Review by Kwana Jackson
In THE BELIEVERS, author Zoe Heller of WHAT WAS SHE THINKING?: NOTES ON A SCANDAL successfully blends family saga with political commentary.
I chose THE BELIEVERS to read because it was a Twitter Book Club pick and seemed interesting for my own book group. I was all ready to get it from the library when I made a twitter comment and won a copy of the book. Lucky me, and loving the Twitter Book Club at The Book Studio http://www.thebookstudio.com/twitterbookclub .
The novel opens with 18-year-old Audrey, a typist at a cocktail party in 1962. Glimpses of her character are instantly shown as she caustically assesses the party-goers from a distance. A young American lawyer named Joel Litvinoff catches her eye as he brags about doing legal work for Dr. Martin Luther King. And Audrey catches him right back, showing that she’s not a girl to be hidden in the background.
Fast forward forty years and the couple are living in their Greenwich Village Brownstone and are now the parents of three grown children.
Joel, 72, is now a famous civil rights attorney and big defender of leftists. He’s about to embark on a case where he’s defending a suspected terrorist when he suffers a stroke. As he lies in a coma Audrey, the family matriarch with a quick temper and a foul mouth to match, has to now deal with everyday life without Joel, when he was the center of her life for so many years. As Joel clings to life, Audrey has to come to terms with the dysfunction in her family and Joel’s past infidelities.
So much has been said about THE BELIEVERS being a book with unlikeable characters, but I found it just the opposite. The fact that the characters are so flawed made me like them even more. Heller didn’t go for the “make your character sympathetic” in order to give the readers something to relate to. At least not in any obvious way. But there was something to sympathize about with each main character.
There is Audrey, who has been called one of the most unlikeable characters in recent history, and she was, but in the most delicious and likable way. I couldn’t wait to turn the next page to see what zinger she’d ding out next. It was as if she had no PC filter and you were cringing in the best of the worst kinds of ways. Everything Audrey says she states as fact because she believes that she is somehow smarter than the rest of the world. Her and Joel’s entire existence has been to the betterment of the less fortunate i.e. less educated. It’s all about the enlightenment y’all.
Next is Rosa, the oldest daughter who was brought up an atheist, but longs to learn about her Jewish heritage—or is she just rebelling against everything she was taught by her parents? She and her mother seem the most alike and can’t share two sentences without it turning into an argument. She works with underprivileged girls that she can help but judge more than she cares for them.
Then there’s Karla, the downtrodden middle child. An overweight social worker, she’s married to a controlling union organizer who treats her with little respect, pretty much the same way everyone in her family always has. But Karla is the peacemaker, and instead of lashing out she eats her feelings away. That is until she meets Khaled, an Egyptian immigrant who runs the newsstand in the hospitals when she works, and once he lavishes her with the attention that she gets nowhere else Karla sees her chance at happiness.
The last child is Lenny. He’s the most frustrating character. The adopted son of Audrey and Joel and clearly the most loved by Audrey, Lenny is a do-nothing, drug addicted free-loader who is the only one able to find a way into the cold heart of Audrey. It’s interesting the way Heller proposes it. In Lenny, it’s like Audrey has no real responsibility for his faults because she didn’t birth him. Something to give pause. Maybe that’s why it is so easy for her to always forgive Lenny and keep taking him back, and why she constantly finds fault with her own birth children. In them she finds fault with herself.
The book follows Audrey, Rosa, Karla and Lenny as they deal with Joel’s coma and deteriorating health. Audrey also has to deal with the possibility of life without Joel and the realization that he may have been unfaithful. Rosa has to answer her questions of faith. Karla has to figure out her ailing marriage while trying to be the peacemaker in the family. And Lenny is dealing with his drug addiction and the idea of staying with what’s easy and comfortable or growing up and striking out on his own.
Through all this Heller takes a sharp look at religion, politics, the class struggle and the idea of elitism while mixing it with passion and family drama. THE BELIEVERS is one of the top books I’ve read this year. Will you be a Believer?