Zoe Heller got her start as a columnist, both for the Telegraph and London Times. (Originally she was asked to do a column when Nick Hornby was on vacation). Described as “girl about town”, these columns concerned her life as a Brit in Manhattan: her romantic misadventures, drinking, etc. Eventually she found it too confining to continue in the confessional format, and turned to fiction:
I would go back to England, and the bank teller would say ‘Hiya, and how’s the boyfriend?’ It was then that I felt quite, inappropriately, affronted. Of course, I had no right to. I had been spilling my guts in public and this was the inevitable result. I am still slightly maddened by having written those columns.”
Her novels are known for their dark humor and less-than-likable characters — the Barbara Covett character in What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal (played by Dame Judi Dench in the movie) comes to mind. The Believers is no exception. The parents of the family in particular are hard to like, even if you mostly agree with their politics. Joel Litvinoff is a William Kunstler-style lawyer: flamboyant, smug, self-aggrandizing. He’s felled by a stroke early in the story; his wife Audrey becomes the central character for a good part of the book. The reader wants to sympathize with her: she’s dealing with the grave illness of her husband of forty years, complicated by the revelation of a serious secret he’s kept from her. But to me, she was such a gratuitously mean character (to her friends, her husband’s associates, even to her children), that it was hard to stir up any empathy for her. I didn’t get enough background to help me understand what made her that way. I wonder if even Heller got fed up with Audrey — I was relieved when the focus of the novel shifted to her two daughters, and wondered if Audrey fatigue had set in with her as well.
Once the story shifted to the two daughters, I found it more engaging. Rosa, who has bought her parents’ atheistic party line all her life, suddenly develops a fascination with Judaism. Her mother might have been able to handle that — but Rosa is exploring the Orthodox version, with its hundreds of exacting laws governing everything from flipping a light switch on Shabbat, to abstaining from marital sex for two weeks out of the month. Karla, the other sister, has struggled with her weight all her life (a problem her mother is particularly cruel about); she’s married to a man from a big Irish family who’s obsessed with having children. They’ve been through years of fertility treatments, and have begun the process of adopting a child. But Karla, whose love life with her husband can only be described as grim, becomes involved with Khaled, an Egyptian newspaper vendor who works near her office, mainly because he convinces her, at least temporarily, of her own beauty. Lenny, their brother, isn’t as central to the plot as the two sisters, but Audrey makes allowances for him that she would never make for her daughters. He’s been in and out of rehab for heroin addiction, and Audrey bends over backward to co-sign his delusions with just as much vigor as she attacks the girls.
To me The Believers was an engrossing read, once the story shifted emphasis from the almost cartoonishly unpleasant Audrey to her more recognizably human children.
Click here to watch a short Barnes & Noble video of Heller discussing, among other things, her tendency to write about difficult characters.
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