Zoe Heller’s third novel, The Believers, follows an unconventional family through illness, disagreements on religion, and shocking realizations. If Heller’s name seems familiar to you, it might be that her previous novel, What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, was recently translated into an Oscar-nominated film. Like her other work, The Believers is a humorous novel, underlined by devilish insight.
The novel opens with the introduction of eighteen-year-old Audrey and thirty-two-year-old Joel at a party in London, Audrey’s home town. Through a whirlwind courtship and nearly disastrous visit to Audrey’s mother, Joel and Audrey are married just as quickly, and living in New York. Jump decades into the future to find Joel and Audrey in late middle age as Joel is a high-profile lawyer defending an accused terrorist, allegedly having a large involvement in 9/11. Just as the trial begins, Joel suffers a severe stroke that leaves him in a coma. This dramatic event forms an interesting starting point for the rest of the novel as we learn about how Audrey has changed from a sassy teenager to a curmudgeonly matriarch. Equally interesting is the progression of Joel and Audrey’s children Karla, Rosa and adopted son Lenny.
The biggest shock of the novel might come from the unassuming Berenice Mason, a black freelance photographer/artist who reveals to Audrey that she not only was a mistress of Joel’s, but also had a child with him. Audrey is at first rather nasty to the woman and incredulous of her son Jamil’s patronage, but not for the reasons you might suspect. It is not the revelation of mere adultery that shocks Audrey, but rather the intimate relationship she soon discovers.
The adult children of this novel each have their own interesting plots. Rosa, once a socialist in Castro’s Cuba, finds herself alienated from these ideals in the wake of her father’s illness. In turning to Orthodox Judaism, Rosa alienates her mother (who was raised Jewish, oddly enough), who takes this newfound religion as a personal attack. Karla, married and childless, begins an affair with the owner of the newspaper counter at the hospital where she works. What makes this affair even more interesting is that Karla, having a constant battle with her weight, has her affair with an equally rotund Arab American despite being married to Mike, who is described as a football player. Lenny’s life is shot through with trouble. From having a mother in jail and a difficult battle with drugs, Lenny relies on Audrey’s love, despite never feeling truly accepted by his adoptive father Joel.
While Audrey may be the grand dame of this novel, a crotchety diva of epic proportions, she is not without cracks in her armor. Heller provides only subtle and fleeting glimpses of Audrey’s humanity, crafting a more believable character in this manner. Through regrets about things she said to Joel and the heartbreak at the betrayal of her children, Audrey proves to be a nuanced and fully realized character.
This novel interestingly recreates the definition of not only the Litvinoff family, but also adapts the greater idea of what it means to be American after 9/11. Quite a feat for a British-born author. This is a novel of love and loss, two emotions that prove to be anything but mutually exclusive. Heller is somewhat well-known for her challenging characters, many of whom could be easily described as “unlikeable.” Heller’s strengths allow the reader to see these characters both objectively and sympathetically. Despite seeing Audrey for the wicked woman she is, Heller also makes certain that you feel at least a modicum of sympathy for her.
The Believers is a strong, balanced novel that might let you learn a thing or two about your own life without aiming to teach. Through struggle, heartbreak and a peculiar notion of love, Heller has established herself as an author to watch out for in the future.