Thursday, 31 March 2011

The Believers - Zoe Heller

Synopsis -  When Audrey makes a devastating discovery about her husband, New York radical lawyer Joel Litvinoff, she is forced to re-examine everything she thought she knew about their 40 year marriage.  Joel's children will soon have to come to terms with this unsettling secret themselves but, in the meantime, they are trying to cope with their own dilemmas.

Rosa, a disillusioned revolutionary, is grappling with a new-found attachment to Orthodox Judaism.  Karla, an unhappily married social worker, is falling in love with an unlikely suitor at the hospital where she works.   Adopted brother Lenny is back on drugs again.

In the course of battling their own demons and each other, every member of the family is called upon to decide what - if anything - they still believe in.

Review - I really liked this book and although the characters are not particularly likeable, they are vulnerable.   Heller in her storytelling leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

The early meeting between Joel and Audrey, as told in the prologue, is strange in its own way.  They both notice each other in a chance encounter and he pursues her to the point of insisting he travels with her to visit her family.  You do not really understand what they want from one another as they are both awkward and stilted, until Audrey invites Joel to sleep with her.  Joel than says that he should take her back to the States and marry her, and to his surprise she agrees.  One is not sure whether they love each other at this stage.  As noted later on in the book, Audrey admits she goes with him to escape her dull, ordinary life in London.

As the story commences we are taken forty years on and they are apparently 'happily' married with two children of their own and an adopted son.  Audrey appears to be a very angry and aggressive person.  We are told that this was a form of cover for her own shyness when she first arrived in New York, but this trait stayed for the rest of her years along with her colourful language and penchant for dope.  The reader may wonder why her character is such, but she has had to put up with years of Joel's infidelities and the reports and comments about it in the papers.  Audrey obviously has problems of her own, as she admits to her lack of maternal instincts in raising her own daughters.  Towards the end of the book Rosa touches her mother's cheek to turn her face towards her to make her listen, a practise that Rosa has had to adopt with her mother  from early childhood.  Karla, the younger daughter has been discouraged by both parents from having high aspirations, leaving her with low self esteem and dietary issues.  Why Audrey is maternally drawn to her loser, adopted son Lenny is a bit of a mystery.  Is he filling a gap that Joel with all his infidelities cannot provide?  Joel is obviously not drawn to Lenny and resents the energy Audrey expends on him in time and money.  Lenny uses Audrey and slowly bleeds her for food, a bed and money, as she is soft with him.

The main story is that Joel is taken ill and his secret comes to light.  For Audrey the fact that Joel's staff knew of this secret does not help Audrey's situation.  Jean, Audrey's incredibly supportive friend is the most likeable and solid person in the story.  She is such a stalwart to put up with Audrey's insults and general bad behaviour.  Around all this we have Lenny's issues with drugs.  Rosa has suddenly found her Jewish faith  much to the derision of her parents and grandmother, and yet by Joel's dying bed Hannah (his Mother) is singing a Yiddish verse.  Karla, is downtrodden by her overbearing husband Mike.  A domineering, manipulative man who outwardly despises the Litvinoff's but demands to be at Joel's dying bedside and funeral service, to be seen (to his advantage) hanging on with this high profile socialist, humanitarian family.  Karla meets Khaled who likes her for who she is and through him she comes to terms with her weight and other issues, realising that she has been trapped in an unhappy marriage.

Joel's family go on a journey of exploration and eventually come out the other side.  There are surprises but the characters are all the stronger for their journey. 4*

Blog Archive