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by Bill Lenderking, AARP The Magazine, March, 2009
The original and stunning new novel The Believers should make clear that Zoë Heller is a fresh and provocative voice in the ranks of Anglo-American writers. Her second, and breakout, book, What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, established her unerring eye for character and situational nuances in describing the affair of an attractive young married teacher with one of her students in a stressful English high school, and the impact it has on those around her. The novel was made into a fine film with Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench, and was notable for its surprising but plausible outcome.
The Believers, more complex and wide-ranging still, chronicles the disarray and uncertainty in the family of prominent radical-left human-rights lawyer and activist Joel Litvinoff in New York City after he suffers a severe stroke and spends most of the novel in a coma.
His leftish bourgeois British wife, Audrey, has been in lockstep with him in political causes throughout their 40 years of marriage, but their personalities—Joel, grandiose and ego-driven, and Audrey, supportive of Joel but gratuitously disagreeable to everyone else she encounters—have taken a severe toll on their three children. Rosa, a Castro supporter who eventually became disillusioned with the revolution's failures, works to empower young girls in Harlem but finds little positive feedback in her job. She seeks deeper meaning through Orthodox Judaism after a chance meeting with a rabbi, a kindly man who is supercilious toward anyone who doesn't see the world and religious faith as he does. Karla, an overweight social worker married to an insensitive and self-absorbed union activist, is plagued by her parents-induced inferiorities, her inability to have a child, and the constant putdowns of Audrey and her husband. Lenny, adopted, has never demonstrated much skill at anything except using drugs and wheedling financial support from his mother.
When Audrey discovers a momentous secret from Joel's past, the impact of that revelation drives the family members to struggle to redefine themselves in the wake of disillusion with radical causes, errant husbands, rigid ideologies, and unfulfilling relationships.
Most of the main characters are Jewish, and the action takes place against the backdrop of New York political activism, but this is neither a "Jewish novel" nor yet another account of family mayhem and dysfunction. The author's standout talents as a social observer, her gift for satire, and her insights into contemporary relationships and keen ear for dialogue propel the story beyond cliché and melodrama into the compelling realm of everyday conflict. The events unfold realistically and pull the reader into the gradual slide upward or downward as the characters strive for meaning, even as they have to adapt to shifting circumstances.
Zoë Heller is a British journalist who wrote a column for London's The Sunday Times Magazine during an extended stay in New York, where she still lives. What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2003, and her work has appeared in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, among other publications.
The Believers' themes are universal, contemporary, and very human. This is a good one—don't wait for the movie.
Bill Lenderking is a retired foreign service officer and freelance journalist. He previously reviewed The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America on AARP The Magazine Online.
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