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The Believers – Book Review

The rabbi shrugged. “Faith is hard, Rosa. Nonbelievers often speak of faith as if it were something easy, a cop-out from the really tough business of confronting a meaningless universe, but it’s not. It’s doubt that’s easy. – From The Believers-

When Audrey Howard meets Joel Litvinoff – a radical American lawyer –  at a party in London in 1962, she is a shy and unsure young woman. But years later, now married to Joel and living in New York City, Audrey has remade herself into a brash, foul-mouthed liberal who views the world cynically and lashes out at everyone around her. When Joel collapses from a stroke and lapses into a coma, Audrey is forced to face not only her out of control temper (and the consequences of it), but her loyalty to a serial adulterer whose shadow she has always lived within.

The Litvinoff family is a complex, rather dysfunctional group of people. Rosa, the youngest daughter, is struggling with her Jewish roots and lack of faith; Karla, the eldest daughter, finds herself in a loveless marriage and struggles to develop enough self-esteem to seek the happiness she is not sure she deserves; and Lenny, the adopted son, battles drug addiction. Despite the strong personality of their father, the Litvinoff children are really more influenced by Audrey – whose boredom with motherhood and barely concealed anger at the world (and her husband in particular) dominate their lives.

Zoe Heller has written a thoughtful and provocative book about politics and religion. Thematically, she explores how individuals discover themselves, while residing within a family whose beliefs threaten to suffocate their uniqueness. Heller’s ironic style and black humor are effective in teasing out the pitfalls of all belief systems – whether they be “politically correct,” religious, or socially radical. By choosing a mostly unlikeable protagonist (Audrey), Heller risks alienating her readers. But, instead, her ability to balance the character’s negative traits with the very real human emotions of fear, isolation, and grief allows for empathy.

I enjoyed the twists and turns of this cerebral novel which moves steadily forward as each character resolves their conflicts – both externally and internally. This is a book which will create great discussion  about the core beliefs individuals carry as they stumble through their lives.

Recommended.

The Believers is due for release by Harper Collins in March 2009 (ISBN #978-0-06-143020-6)

10 Comments

  1. November 1, 2008    

    This one really sounds interesting. I got the other one from B & N and it was just okay.

  2. November 1, 2008    

    Kathy: I’ve been seeing mixed reviews on this one…but I appreciated the complexity of the characters and Heller’s beautiful writing and irony. Hope you’ll enjoy it.

  3. November 2, 2008    

    Thanks for this review. I have seen this book around and have been tempted to pick it up a couple of times – the next time I see it I think I will. I tend to really enjoy books that don’t have a “typical” female protagonist.

  4. November 2, 2008    

    Yes, it’s on my list, most of the reviews I’ve read have been hugely positive.

  5. November 3, 2008    

    Oh Wendy, you really have to stop adding to my TBR like this! It’s getting out of hand. LOL!

  6. November 3, 2008    

    Karen: Audrey is definitely NOT a typical female protagonist! Hope you enjoy the book.

    Seachanges: Oh, it is good to see most of the reviews are positive…I don’t think it is a book for everyone, but I really enjoyed it.

    Teddy: *laughing* Only if you promise to do the same for me 🙂

  7. December 26, 2008    

    i agree that the book offers a lot in terms of discussion- it’s definitely character-driven and the paths they travel would make for great book club fodder.

  8. December 28, 2008    

    Marie: *nods* I know a lot of readers who really didn’t like this one…but even still, they had a lot to say about it!

  9. Jenny Jenny
    January 1, 2009    

    This is a fine book. The corrosive and largely unintended effects of parental style on adult life are brilliantly conveyed. I especially liked the treatment of Karla and her unlikeable husband who has taken her on as an improvement project, taking over where Audrey, her mother, left off. Karla’s relentless resort to fattening food both as a mute protest against her mother and also as a source of transient comfort followed immediately by guilt will be familiar to dieters everywhere.
    This is a real page-turner but on reflection I found myself doubting whether the Joel-Audrey marriage would actually have survived so long given how horrible she seems.

  10. January 4, 2009    

    Jenny: Thank you for your thoughts. I agree with you…and yes, I think the marriage would have been more strained. Audrey did not strike me as the tolerant type!

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