Thursday, May 26, 2011

27. The Believers by Zoe Heller

The Believers has been on my TBR list since I read this detailed review. To be honest, I'm not really sure how I feel about it, after looking forward to it for so long.

The novel tells the story of a Socialist family in New York after the famous lawyer father, Joel Litvinoff has a stroke. I especially enjoyed the mother Audrey, who is, as Myers says, "perhaps the most memorable and perfectly realized bitch in fiction." She's cruel, unyielding, tactless-and familiar. This particular breed of cruelty reminds me of matriarchal figures both from fiction and real life, women whose survival strategy is to insist on having everything on their own terms, screw everyone else, especially their children. We get glimpses into her humanity when her oldest daughter Karla remembers her mother once showing her a picture of herself as a fat child and confessing that Karla got her tendency toward obesity from her. Audrey continually harps on Karla's weight, but Karla realizes that only her mother notices, because only her mother cares. The novel follows Audrey, Karla, and the next daughter Rosa. There is also an adopted son, Lenny.

Rosa is in the midst of a religious experience, she walked into an Orthodox synagogue, and after years of religious Leftism, felt a spark. The story feels an oddly backwards one for this day and age, someone escaping the folds of organized religion might seem more timely. In any case, Rosa's transformation is distinctly not overnight. I found Heller's portrayal of her reactions to Orthodoxy, feelings of isolation in a new environment and feminist rage at the laws of the mikveh, realistic. As Rosa is urged by her new friends to accept and to act without understanding, I was brought back to lessons from my own (Jewish) religious education and began wondering again. Heller does not make her Believers simple or naive or unsympathetic. Audrey, for example, is a Socialist fanatic, but it's amazing to watch her confidence in her own opinion. As the novel attests, she is not incapable of change either.

One of my favorite characters was a non PoV character, Audrey's friend Jean. Jean is described as tall and mannish, she's wealthier than Audrey and of more moderate political opinions. While Audrey attempts to woo favors from her (employing her druggie son), blows up at her, accuses her of undermining her, Jean puts up with her friend's behavior calmly, gives her good advice, continues to invite her out. I found myself identifying with Jean, I have often been in her position, and I also have friends who have held Jean's position for me. I can see why Audrey is fun to have around, and while she may be too much for me in person, I enjoyed Jean's ability to handle her.

I didn't find The Believers particularly ironic or satirical nor a sharp social commentary. For me, it was an exploration of how families interact and the thought process of people who believe in causes and higher purposes. But reactions to a book can be very personal and I suspect mine only penetrated a part of this one, as I'm just not seeing here what others have.

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