The Believers

Full disclosure: The novelist Zoë Heller is my sister-in-law. But she doesn’t exactly need my praise. Her first two novels were published to wide critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic; the second, Notes on a Scandal, was a huge bestseller in England and became a film—also acclaimed—starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.

Her new book, The Believers, is her best. I’ve just finished my second reading—I read it first in manuscript—and liked it even better. It’s the story of a Jewish family in New York, and although it’s her first book with a Jewish theme, it shows great depth of understanding of Judaism and Jewishness.

The central power of the family is pointedly moribund throughout the book. He is Joel Litvinoff, a radical lawyer in the William Kunstler mold who has defended near-lost left-wing causes all his life. He is a shaggy, arrogant, womanizing lion of the left who keels over in court while defending an alleged Muslim terrorist. He spends the rest of the book in a coma, but even from his hospital bed he motivates the complex, moving story.

His wife Audrey is sharp-tongued harridan who blisters every living creature in her path. Their daughters, Karla and Rosa, are respectively a fat ultra-liberal social worker beaten down by her upbringing and a beautiful and smart young teacher who, having spent four years in a disillusioning Cuba, wanders into a synagogue service and is amazed to see a tear make a pale spot on the page of the siddur under her eyes.

Their adoptive, drug-addicted brother Lenny is by far Audrey’s favorite, although he is kept in a cage of dependency partly because his mother relies on it. She was a mother twice over when she took him in, but one proud of her lack of “maternal zeal.” Still, when his natural mother was finally jailed for violent plots against the government, “something had changed on the night that she found Lenny in the Harlem apartment.

“Gazing down at his owl-eyed face—noticing the chalky mustache of Yoo-Hoo on his upper lip, the glistening scribble of dog drool on his pants, she felt an aperture being opened, a pilot light being lit somewhere deep within. Her temples throbbed. She had a panicked sense of onrush, of internal torrent. She wanted to pick the boy up and—she didn’t know what—squeeze him, kiss him, swallow him whole.”

This is Audrey’s first epiphany, a life-saving wobble in her orbit of Joel’s volcanic planet. Audrey, Karla, and Rosa are the heroes of this book, and to reviewers who find them hard to like, I have to say I am puzzled. Like the main characters in her earlier books, they are tormented people fighting to find meaning, and yet to keep meaning at arm’s length when it leans in toward them.

But somehow they experience epiphanies that crush their defenses and make them almost whole. These women are explorers as much as believers, cynical yet reflective and passionate in their searches. All three have been stifled and shrunken by their dogmatic paterfamilias–a leftist pope, and all are freed as much as bereft by his stroke.

The New York Times Book Review quotes a long passage about Audrey, prefaced with, “The author seems to have little patience or empathy for her, either.” The reviewer simply misreads the point of view; we are inside Audrey’s head, not Heller’s:

“By the time she woke up and discovered that people were making faces at her behind her back—that she was no longer a sexy young woman with a charmingly short fuse but a middle-aged termagant—it was too late. Her anger had become a part of her. It was a knotted thicket in her gut, too dense to be cut down and too deeply entrenched in the loamy soil of her disappointments to be uprooted.”

This anguished woman is bemoaning what she has become but is unable to change, and her self-loathing mitigates (if it doesn’t justify) many sins. Audrey’s destructiveness is detestable, but she deeply loves the most important of those she hurts. How many of us are so different?

Karla and Rosa, on the other hand, are very likable. Karla is so trapped in her body and her marriage–to a severe leftist union man with her father’s arrogance but not his intellect—that you want to hug her whole bulk and feed her delicacies. This is what happens when she succumbs to an Arab news vendor, a big warm bear of a man who leads her into a clumsy but exquisitely poignant love affair. The contrast with the perfunctory, punctilious, fecundity-conscious sex she has in her marriage is stunning.

Rosa’s romance with Orthodox Judaism is warm and funny. Skeptical of her new God’s ability to replace the god that failed her, she nevertheless opens her heart to the possibilities that only a formal religious tradition offers:

“Rosa loved the methodical process of unwrapping the layers of meaning in the Torah. She loved the modesty that the process demanded. Above all, she loved the atmosphere of scholarly comradeship—of shared commitment to deciphering a complex, intricate text. It seemed to her that in excavating the wisdom of the rabbinical sages, she was discovering something distinctively Jewish about her own way of thinking.”

A religious Jew might say: Of course! You are simply standing again at Sinai. But whether this echo is one of revelation or just of resonant tradition, Rosa gets it—and so does Heller.

Not surprisingly for a modern woman (ex-Red or not), Rosa balks at mikvah and certain other laws affecting women. Yet her mind is open; while spending Shabbos at the rabbi’s, she is struck by his recitation of Ayshes chayil, the praise song from Proverbs for “A woman of worth”:

“And when Rosa glanced down at the other end of the table, she saw that Mrs. Reinman’s eyes were demurely lowered. There was something ludicrous, she thought, about this elfin man yodeling a uxorious hymn to his matronly wife at the dinner table: ludicrous, yet touching also. Her own childhood mealtimes at Perry street had been napkinless, slapdash affairs, presided over by a fuming mother for whom food preparation was the focal point of all housewifely resentments.”

It is not surprising that Jewish family life becomes in turn a focal point for many of this young woman’s unfulfilled longings.

All three of these stifled, hurt women break out of their sphere of doctrinaire submission when the man they have revolved around falls away. Rosa romances religion, Karla a kind stranger, and Audrey a new take on her old vision, cynical but marvelously triumphant. When she speaks to the crowd at her husband’s funeral she is so brilliant we want to stand and cheer with the assembled mourners. In the last words of the book we are treated to a hilarious movie metaphor that flags Karla’s own ambiguous triumph.

Each of the women has a foil—Audrey’s rich friend Jean, Rosa’s hip black co-counselor in the after-school program, and, most ironically, Karla’s Arab lover—who emphatically is not a believer. Each tries to teach the lesson that we live not for belief, but life. I’d be the last to accuse Zoë Heller of optimism, but there is hope in these women’s futures.

Her two previous novels were brilliantly structured, tightly plotted fictional machines, with characters moving relentlessly along a path between resentment and redemption. The Believers is a much more ambitious work, with more varied and compelling characters and a large, successfully tendered philosophical theme. With it she confirms her status as one of the most skilled novelists of her generation, and makes a plausible bid to become one who will matter long after we are gone.

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