Friday, December 12, 2008

REVIEW: The Believers, by Zoe Heller

The Believers, by Zoe Heller. Published 2009 by HarperCollins. Literary Fiction.

I read an ARC of The Believers courtesy of Barnes & Noble's First Look program.

The Believers is a domestic drama centering on the solipsistic Litvinoff family, a leftist, secular activist Jewish clan living in New York and made up of hard-charging trial lawyer Joel, his loyal wife Audrey and their adult children Rosa, Karla and Lenny. The Litvinoffs are dedicated social activists who want to make the world a better place, but who seem to have forgotten that charity begins at home. Joel and Audrey are as dedicated to solipsism as they are to activism- rarely in literature have I seen such a shallow, selfish, unhappy pair. When Joel is felled by a sudden stroke, it's up to Audrey to hold the family together, a task she fails at utterly.

Karla, Rosa and Lenny are adrift as adults, each finding something to substitute for the love they missed at home- food for Karla, religion for Rosa and drugs for Lenny. Karla is overweight and stuck in a loveless marriage; she embarks on an affair with a coworker that I think was supposed to be empowering, but just felt to me like another crutch. Rosa becomes interested in Orthodox Judaism, but she struck me as rather naive. When we meet her, she is preparing to spend a weekend with an Orthodox family, on a kind of extended Shabbat, when religious Jews take a step back from certain worldly activities, like using electricity or spending money. She seems to regard the weekend as some kind of suburban camping trip and starts out blissfully ignorant of even the most basic components of Shabbat-keeping, which struck me as hard to believe. I think someone spending a weekend with an Orthodox rabbi might, you know, read up a little on what to expect, you know? So she lacked credibility for me. Lenny's character was the least developed of the three, and as Audrey's favorite I wish I got to know him better.

But nothing about the various dysfunctions of the children compares with the blistering boil of misery that is Audrey. Self-centered, bitter and completely lacking in empathy for others, she's a textbook narcissist- and not one of the charming ones. I kept hoping that somehow that Heller would redeem her or show us another side of her, but she never did. At one point Audrey is confronted with a secret from her husband's past but reacts in the same old angry Audrey way and doesn't change or grow, so I wonder what the point of the whole storyline was supposed to be. It doesn't contribute anything, nobody grows, and there's plenty going on otherwise.

The Believers was a book I wanted to like- I kept waiting for it to get better, I kept waiting for the characters to change, or grow, or something, but it never happened. Heller's writing isn't bad, and I think that's probably what kept me going, because in many ways she's made a well-crafted novel. I just wish she'd crafted likable characters, embroiled them in a compelling plot and brought them to a satisfying conclusion. That's all.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.


caite said...

What you say is true. They are unlikable characters, and yet I found myself liking this book, certainly more that you did.

Good review.

bermudaonion said...

I think I'll skip this one - I don't think anyone loved it.

Wendy said...

I actually ended up liking this novel (here is my review), although I agree the characters are mostly unlikeable. Heller certainly has a gift to write well - and I always appreciate a book that manages to pull me in despite me not really liking any of the characters!

michelle of bleeding espresso said...

I'm intrigued. Sometimes I like unlikeable characters and sometimes they ruin the book for me...thanks for the review!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

That's not too much to ask!

(if her writing is as good as you indicate, maybe the plot and character development will mature with more writing.)

Anna said...

I don't think I'll be reading this one. I don't mind unlikeable characters, but I like to see the evolve over the course of the story. Thanks for the honest review!

Diary of an Eccentric

Sandra said...

I'm supposed to review this for B & N too. I'm often intrigued after a review like this to see if I feel the same way about a book's strengths and weaknesses. And it's always nice to read an honest review. Thanks.

mangomissives said...

I read this for the B&N First Look as well. It sounds like I liked it a little more than you did. I agree with you in that I didn't find the characters very likable.