October 2009

This book is set in modern-day New York, focusing on the life of Joel Litvinoff, a well-known socialist lawyer, and his British wife, Audrey. After Joel suffers a stroke, Audrey discovers something about him so shocking that she is forced to re-evaluate their life together.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that nothing about them is as it seems. To the world they are great philanthropists, as parents, lovers and friends they are woefully deficient.

Their children have been left to struggle without much help from parents too busy helping the poor and downtrodden. Rosa, the beautiful clever one, returns from a promisingly idealistic start in Cuba full of personal and spiritual doubt. When she decides to explore her Jewish roots, her mother is horrified, and makes her feelings brutally clear.

Karla, miserably married to a toadying trade unionist, obsesses about her weight and fertility. Her self-confidence was knocked as a child by her parents, only towards the end of the book does her mother finally support her in what she wants to do.

The adopted son, Lenny, is the one child Audrey loves without reservation, but only by getting away from her does he manage to conquer his drug problem.

Zoë Heller’s third novel is engrossing and satisfying. The characters are real, presented just as they are, stripped of all social niceties. Some of the book circle liked them for their failings, most didn’t, but we all recognised them.

The book deals with an impressive range of issues, from obesity and smoking to Zionism and adultery. There are no attempts at easy answers, but lots of interesting questions are raised with intelligence and wit. Several of us were put off initially by the bad language, but only one gave up on the book because of it. The writing is sharp and edgy, providing a domestic drama that’s funny, rewarding and – in places – quite masterful. There’s not a lot of plot, but we didn’t care; The Believers prompted a long and animated discussion. Love them or hate them, we all had something to say about the Litvinoffs.

On November 12 we will be discussing Rabbit, Run by John Updike.

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