335 pg (plus About ZH, story behind the book, author book picks)
The Litvinoffs are your average, dysfunctional family. Audrey and Joel weren't your typical parents though. They were socialists who didn't believe in coddling. They raised their children to question and never settle. At least in theory. Joel's stroke leaves the family spending time together and having to actually talk to each other. Audrey, his wife, is a bitter, foul-mouthed know-it-all in her late 50s. The children, Rosa, Karla and Lenny, are all facing their own demons and having to deal with what Audrey calls her "sane response to motherhood". Lenny's a 34 year old druggy who gets a $100 a week allowance from his mom. Karla is struggling in a loveless marriage that she feels is all she deserves. Rosa is trying to find a missing part of herself.
Rosa was the only character I liked in The Believers. I felt her struggles to come to terms with her Jewish past and reconcile the reality with her imaginations was believable. Many of the other characters felt like caricatures - over the top and dreary. All the black characters in the book were deficit - Berenice, the husband stealer who takes pictures of her "genitalia", the girls from Girlpower who "danced a nasty little pornographic dance" and were stuck in their "class destiny" and the "scruffy middle aged black man" who is homeless and plays music on trains for money.
I felt very distant when reading The Believers. I've read many books that were outside of my comfort zone but the author usually finds a way to bring me into the story. To show me the magic they are creating, they infuse a sense of wonder and sharing into the story that they are weaving. Here, I felt condescended to, like the author was saying here's a story, you won't understand it but I'll tell you anyway.
There were a few funny parts, when Karla's explaining how misjudged she is because she's not a nurturer. She has the "not infrequent desire to smack her mother in the face." Which I also felt. For most of the characters.
I enjoyed the insight into Jewish customs and traditions. Rosa's struggle between the emotional and intellectual when it comes to religion felt like one I'd been through and could understand.
All in all, The Believers was a decent book that I'd been wanting to read this since its HC release. I was happy to have this opportunity. It just wasn't the book for me at this moment.
About the Author
Zoë Heller is the author of Everything You Know and What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and made into an acclaimed film starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench. Heller lives in New York.
Zoe Heller interview (13 min)