Monday, December 8, 2008

a review of "The Believers"

The Believers by Zoe Heller

The Litvinoff's are a family in crisis. The father, Joel, a famous radical lawyer, very early in the book, has a massive stroke and is in a coma. His wife Audrey and their three grown children are left to deal with this and with each other and with a “surprise” they discover about Joel.

Audrey is an angry, disagreeable woman, out to be more radical than her radical husband.
“By the time she woke up and discovered that people were making faces at her behind her back-that she was no longer a sexy young woman with a charmingly short fuse but a middle-aged termagant- it was too late. Her anger had become a part of her. It was a knotted thicket in her gut, too dense to be cut down and too deeply entrenched in the loamy soil of her disappointments to be uprooted.”

Their oldest daughter Karla is married to a union organizer and desperately trying to have a child, in order to be the perfect family. Rosa, the younger daughter, after spending years in Cuba as a committed communist, has returned home and to the great chagrin of her mother, has decided to return to the Orthodox Judaism of her ancestors, while adopted son Lenny is a ne'er-do-well drug addict....and the apple of his mother's eye.

All their various belief systems, be they religion or family or radical politics, are facing challenges, both from within and without. When faced with their individual turning points, how will they react? As Rosa's rabbi explains to her;
“Do you remember what the Israelites said at Sinai? 'We shall do and we shall hear.' Their choice of syntax was meaningful, Rosa. They were expressing their willingness to do God's will before they really understood it. That is the crucial lesson of the Sinaitic revelation-God doesn't need our perfect understanding or even our perfect faith. What he wants is our commitment, our actions.”
And each of The Believers will be challenged to let their actions speak for what they truly believe as the story plays out.

Quite honestly, when I read the cover description of this book, I was not hopeful that I would like it. New York radical lawyer...a secret...his wife forced to re-examine her ideas about him and their forty year marriage...their adult children have to come to terms with this unsettling discovery.
It all sounded rather not like my usual cup of tea.

But I was very wrong and I actually liked this book a great deal. The Believers is a very interesting book, very well written and with excellent characters. That I think is the real strength of the book, the excellent characters. These are not perfect people to any degree, and I mean any degree, but even in their mistakes and pettiness and anger...well, we like and understand them because they have been so well and clearly portrayed. Actually, to say we like them is not really true very often in this book because they are not really very likable, but we still want them to find their way. We feel rather like the one nice person in the book, Audrey's friend Jean. We wonder why Jean puts up with Audrey's nastiness and even cruelty toward her and still always seems so positive and is always there for her friend, just as we wonder why we continue to care about the Litvinoff's. And that says a deal about the excellence of Ms. Heller's skill as a writer.

Available For Pre-order from Amazon, Available March 3, 2009


  1. I'm with you, this is something that I would probably never pick up on my own. But it sounds interesing and looks like it is well written. Great review!

  2. I've read mixed reviews on this one. Glad to see you liked it.

  3. If you read the reviews, people either seem to hate it or like it a lot. It's pretty either or...
    I thought the author was able to make us care about unlikable people...and that is hard.

    And no, it is not a book I would have ever picked up myself in all likelihood.

  4. I think I'd like this's going on my list. Thanks for the review, Caite!

  5. I didn't get far enough to even realize they had a third child. Hmmm...I guess I'll keep this around and try again another time. Maybe I'll be more in the mood for it later.

  6. I can see that this is a book that you would have to be in the right mood for. Maybe that does not speak too well of a book, but it is sometimes true.


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