three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
By: 
Zoe Heller
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-The BelieversZoë Heller, born in London and now living in New York, is a journalist and a novelist. Her previous novel, What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal, was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2003.

The Story: In the early 1960s, Audrey Howard, a British secretary, meets Joel Litvinoff, a radical American attorney, at a party; they marry and settle in New York. Forty years later, Joel, while defending an accused Muslim terrorist, has a stroke, leaving his family—and their leftist ideology—in shambles. His daughter, Rosa, disillusioned by her work both in Cuba and with Harlem adolescents, spitefully embraces Orthodox Judaism; another daughter, Karla, struggles with wifehood and starts a friendship with an Egyptian news vendor; Lenny, the manipulative foster brother, abuses drugs; and Audrey, the shrewish matriarch, uncovers a terrible secret. Without their patriarch, the family members question their faith, religion, politics, and relationships as they struggle to redefine themselves.
Harper. 335 pages. $25.99. ISBN: 006143020X

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Heller’s incisiveness glints again. … The Believers is funny and harrowing at once, and it’s invigorating to watch Rosa and Karla find ways to break out of the family script." Nancy Connors

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"[Heller’s] latest novel, a story about a modern New York family in the wake of personal tragedy, is everything fiction should be: captivating, entertaining and in many ways, absolutely true. … Suffice it to say that Ms. Heller delivers right to the end with an unflinching honesty that allows us to laugh at our very human foibles." Beatriz Terrazas

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s a testament to [Heller’s] respect for the full spectrum of human nature that her fiercely drawn characters endure satiric exposure that would burn weaker ones to a crisp. … All of these moments, even the most painful ones, constantly vibrate with Heller’s wit, her steely attention to our delicate egos and desperate longings." Ron Charles

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Its depiction of a family galaxy that spins around an accomplished, famous and amorous father is reminiscent of Claire Messud’s satirical novel The Emperor’s Children… Heller’s journalistic distance enhances her powers of observation, but it also erects emotional barriers, and some readers may find it difficult to care deeply about these characters." Jill Abramson

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"The Believers has the rudderless, shambolic feel of life. … However, the true sparks, flashes of brilliance, and the straightness of Heller’s skewers make it an interesting read." Mary Ambrose

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"[T]his novel showcases [Heller’s] copious gifts, including a scathing, Waugh-like wit; an unerring ear for the absurdities of contemporary speech; and a native-born Brit’s radar for class and status distinctions. … The Believers tends to feel like a transitional work—an experiment in multiple points of view and thematic variations—devised to stretch the author’s literary muscles, and leading, in the future perhaps, to a big-boned novel that is more fully realized." Michiko Kakutani

Times (UK) 3 of 5 Stars
"There is more than a whiff of The Corrections in Heller’s narrative, though her mix of social satire and sharp characterisation is not as seamless as Jonathan Franzen’s. In the end The Believers, although neatly structured, adroitly written and exploring a heroically wide range of fashionable social issues, from obesity and adoption to Zionism and adultery, is a novel that leaves its questions unanswered." Jane Shilling

Critical Summary

Zoë Heller—compared by some critics to Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, and Allegra Goodman in her use of social satire to explore dysfunctional families—astutely delves into the deepest, most uncomfortable areas of human nature. Written with a journalistic flair and by turns humorous and depressing, The Believers casts a sharp eye on human foibles and the transformation of a radical family in the new century. Every critic praised Heller’s ample skills, although a few found the characters, especially the nasty Audrey, difficult to relate to. Others, such as Lenny, came off as caricatures. Perhaps, as the New York Times suggested, Heller tried to do too much in the novel.

Cited by the Critics

The Emperor’s Children | Claire Messud: 4 of 5 Stars Selection Nov/Dec 2006. In a social satire for the 21st century, Claire Messud follows three friends, all Brown University graduates approaching 30, looking to make their mark as the cultural elite of a new generation. However, a post-9/11 world calls into question the pretense and entitlement of privilege.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. Did you find your opinions of the characters in The Believers changed as you read the book?

2. Are there characters that you ended up feeling more positive or sympathetic towards than others?

3. Choosing two characters, can you give examples of personality traits you find appealing and unappealing about each?

4. Do you find that the book’s wit helps to make the family tensions more bearable, or do you find the humour uncomfortable?

5. Do you find the men and the women in the book to be equally rounded characters?

6. What influence does Joel have on the family after his stroke, when he is in a coma?

7. Are there aspects of the book that you feel are unfairly critical of people’s political, moral or religious beliefs?

8. Do you feel that the beliefs and self knowledge the characters end up with are more genuine than those they start out with?

9. Discuss how you think the lives of the members of the Litvinoff family will continue during the months after the funeral. How closely will each of them stick to the decisions they have made?

10. What are your feelings about Audrey’s eulogy at Joel’s funeral?

11. What motivates Audrey’s apparent change of heart regarding Berenice?

12. Do you consider the book to present belief in a negative or positive light?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Knopf. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.