OK, good -- it's been a while, so I was about due for one of these. The Believers, by Zoe Heller (Harper Collins, 2008), was awesome! I picked this one out based on a New York Times review, which works out better some times than others ... this book was one of the betters. It's a well-written, believable, moving story about a family, yes -- but it's also a novel about what we believe in, and what happens when those beliefs are shaken.
Most of the novel is set in contemporary New York City, although it opens with a brief trip back to London in the early 1960s. Here, Audrey Howard, 19 year old daughter of an utterly dismal working-class family, meets Joel Litvinoff, a fiery leftist American lawyer some 12 years her senior, at a party. On a whim, they take the long train trek to her parents' home the next day, and such begins an odd courtship we're never really privy to.
However, it must have been successful, as 40 years later, the pair are still married (more or less happily, we presume), with three grown children. Consequently, when Joel suffers a sudden stroke in the courtroom, and is left in a coma, five lives are thrown into disarray. Rosa, who's shared her father's socialist and atheist sentiments for most of her life, has recently begun testing the waters of Orthodox Judaism, and struggles to reconcile not just a lifelong skepticism with the comforts of faith, but the many restrictions of that faith with her intellectual heritage. Karla, an overweight social worker who's forever apologizing and trying not to ask too much, is embarking on adopting a child with husband Mike (she feels she owes him that much, even if she's fairly indifferent about the whole thing) when she forges a tentative friendship (or is it?) that leads her to question everything she's settled for over the years. And Lenny, himself adopted at 7 after his birth mother was jailed for Weatherman-type activities, has been pretty disorganized all along, struggling with his drug addiction and the suffocating results of Audrey's one vein of maternal instinct.
Audrey herself, frankly, is awful ... so much so that you don't know whether to laugh or cringe. When a former lover of Joel's shows up on the doorstep after his stroke, wanting her young son to get to know his half-siblings, you find yourself feeling like Audrey had it coming (not my usual reaction in stories where adultery suddenly comes to the surface). To say too much more would spoil much of the pleasure the book offers, but it's both a page-turner and a thinking person's novel. Enjoy.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.