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The Believers    by Zoe Heller order for
by Zoe Heller
Order:  USA  Can
Harper, 2009 (2009)
Hardcover, e-Book
* *   Reviewed by Elizabeth Schulenburg

Joel and Audrey Litvinoff have been mostly agreeably married for forty years. After a whirlwind romance in Audrey's native England, the couple moved to America, where Joel was a mostly successful trial lawyer. They pursue their social activist ideals doggedly, and raise their children to embrace those values as well. When Joel suffers a massive stroke that leaves him in a coma, Audrey finds herself with the unenviable task of trying to hold their family together.

Joel and Audrey's three children are each miserable in their own way, trying to make up for their lack of maternal affection growing up. Karla, the oldest, is stuck in an unaffectionate marriage, attempting to overcome fertility problems in order to produce the child everyone expects. Rosa, the beautiful one, is experiencing a crisis of faith, as the socialist ideals she cherished are giving way to a new interest in Judiasm that is reviled by her mother. Lenny, the adopted son, hides in drugs and alcohol, and cons his mother into funding his slacker lifestyle. Each of the children is given an opportunity to make their bleak life better - Karla with an unexpected affair, Rosa with a trip to an observant Jewish enclave, and Lenny with an idyllic retreat away from the drugs of the city - but all three struggle to accept the changes presented them.

Audrey herself is filled with almost too much hatred to be believable. She is completely self-centered and narcissistic, and almost fails to elicit any sympathy from the reader when her husband is life-threateningly ill. Heller is known for creating complicated, unlikable characters, and Audrey may be her crowning achievement. It is often difficult to read her cruel, thoughtless dismissals of her children, husband, and friends. While her children seem to be immature and needy, Audrey is simply miserable.

So why would someone want to read this book? Because despite her unlikable characters, Zoe Heller writes an interesting, intelligent novel that is hard to put down. She does not write an easy novel - I often found myself so irritated with a character that I wanted to throw the book across the room. But each time, something drew me back. Something in the story itself, in Heller's crafting of the words on the page, kept me reading until the end.

The Believers is not a book that will appeal to all readers. But for the persistant reader, Heller's characters will insinuate their way into your head, and you might even find yourself learning something from them after all.

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