Book Review for “The Believers” by Zoë Heller.
Summary: “When Audrey makes a devastating discovery about her husband, New York radial lawyer Joel Litvinoff, she is forced to re-examine everything she thought she knew about their forty-year marriage. Joel’s children will soon have to come to terms with this unsettling secret themselves, but for the meantime, they are trying to cope with their own dilemmas. Rosa, a disillusioned revolutionary, is grappling with a new found attachment to Orthodox Judaism. Karla, an unhappily married social worker, is falling in love with an unlikely suitor at the hospital where she works. Adopted brother Lenny is back on drugs again. In the course of battling their own demons and each other, every member of the family is called upon to decide what – if anything – they still believe in.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Contemporary, USA – New York; Other Categories: Novel, Coming-of-Age.
This is another one of those books that I’ve had on my shelf for quite some time (it was published in 2008), and didn’t realized I had until we moved house and while packing up, I realized I’d never read it. Yes, like many people, I read her book “Notes on a Scandal” and loved it (the movie wasn’t too bad either, although I’m not much of a Cate Blanchett fan, but I adore Judi Dench), but that was before I started this blog. Why I never picked this one up (and I also have her “Everything You Know” as well), is beyond me. Well, with a touch more time on my hands since my retirement, I decided to finally give this a try, and I’m very glad I did, because it drew me in quite quickly. Well, what Jewish woman who has had their own crisis of faith wouldn’t want to read a book about a non-religious, left-wing Jewish family who are living through their own disasters, right? But seriously, that certainly touched me very personally, although I don’t think in the way that Heller was intending.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. I have to say that Heller’s characters seem to be either the type of people you love to hate, or the people you care enough about that you really want to slap some sense into them. Audrey was the former here. mind you, there were times I wanted to shake Audrey as well, but for the most part, I actually didn’t like her much as a person, but I felt she was a victim of her own actions. With all her political convictions, she allowed herself to take a back bench to her husband Joel, and ignored most of his faults. Heller seems to reason that Audrey’s adoration of Joel was mostly to blame, and that’s what blinded her, and kept her from becoming her own person. I’m not so sure I buy that, but who am I to judge? Love can make some people very stupid sometimes.
I also should admit that I sometimes got mixed up as to which daughter was Rosa and which was Karla. This is probably the main reason why I’m not going to give this book a full five stars; their two voices were supposed to be of two women who were very different from each other, and yet they sometimes melded into each other in my mind. Even now, I’m unsure which was the elder, which was the younger, which was supposed to be the dominant or favorite, or which was the sidelined, quiet one. Obviously, it wasn’t hard for me to pick out Larry, the adopted brother. Then there’s Jean, Audrey’s best friend, who was annoyingly wise and probably too good for all of them. For me, there was something a touch off with this whole dynamic, together with Audrey’s deep-seated anger at the world, which manifested in her having a very acerbic wit and a pretty sharp tongue. Actually, my favorite parts were when Audrey was using foul language, and acting pissed off at everything. That’s kind of what makes me think that her putting herself in Joel’s shadow didn’t sit right with me.
By the way, I have to mention that Heller got me with one quote from when Rosa decides to stay for Shabbat (the Jewish sabbath) with an orthodox family:
Rosa smiled coolly and turned to Rebecca, sitting on her other side. ‘You must be having your bat mitzvah soon,’ she said.
Rebecca Shook her head. ‘No, we – ‘
‘We don’t do that,’ Mr. Riskin intervened. ‘Bat mitzvah celebrations are not Orthodox.’
‘Oh, I see,’ Rosa said, not seeing at all.
‘The bat mitzvah is just something the Reconstructionist Jews cooked up so that girls would not feel “left out”,’ Mr. Riskin explained. ‘Then the Reform got in on the idea and now it’s big business.’
YES! Credit where credit is due! Technically, she’s 100% right – it was the Reconstructionist movement that had the first bat mitzvah (which is a Jewish ceremony that marks the transition from being a child to an adult). In fact, I happen to have known the woman who was that first girl to take part in this ceremony. Mind you, that someone Orthodox would know this might be a touch surprising. However, seeing as the founder of the Reconstructionist movement (who was that first bat mitzvah girl’s father) was also the first English speaking Orthodox rabbi ordained in the US, maybe Riskin’s knowing this isn’t all that far-fetched. Either way, good for Heller for doing her research properly.
In general, I liked this book a great deal, even if I didn’t care for all of the characters all of the time, and even though there were some slightly confusing parts where the two daughters didn’t always sound like separate people. I also thought that Heller found an excellent ending for this book, which concluded just enough, but not too much. This is why I’ll recommend this novel with a very healthy four out of five stars (and I will read the other one on my shelf, some day. I promise).
This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you.
This novel qualifies for the following reading challenges: 20 Books of Summer 21 (#11).