Last night I just couldn’t sleep, so thought I might as well finish reading The Believers
by Zoe Heller. Unfortunately it was not the kind of book that makes you snooze!
I very much enjoyed Notes on a Scandal and having been given a copy of The Believers by the lovely Savidge Reads, I was curious about how it would compare. To be honest, I didn’t quite know what to expect with this one as it is one of those novels that revolves around a family and the experiences of the different people in it which I’m not normally 100% keen on reading.
Without giving too much away, plot-wise, the book revolves around a family living in New York whose father Joel Litvinoff, a prominent and radical lawyer, becomes ill. Audrey, his wife makes a devastating discovery about him and is forced to re-examine everything she thought she knew about her 40 year marriage. The grown-up children of the family (Rosa, Karla and Lenny) have to face this secret themselves, alongside their own muddled up lives.
At this point, I just want to say that this isn’t a bleeding-heart story at all, rather the illness is more a lynchpin around which we see the different characters develop and change. It is a moving novel, but so carefully crafted with Heller’s trademark dark humour that it never feels contrived or soppy in any way.
Initially it took me a little while to get into The Believers, but I always think that it does take a while with novels that revolve around the experiences of a variety of different characters. After all you have to get into the heads of each one instead of just following a main protagonist.
To my surprise, religious belief played much less of a part in this novel than I thought it would. Whoever drew the cover with all it’s different religious symbols on it confused me greatly! The character who confronts religion is Rosa who despite her parent’s adamant atheism has discovered a new found attachment to Orthadox Judaism. Rosa finds herself naturally drawn to Judaism, but struggles with the intellectual basis of the rules and rituals. I recently read The God Delusion, and in the light of that, I found the clash between Audrey and her daughter’s opinions on the topic of organised religion particularly interesting. Audrey’s strident anti-religious stance reminded me of Dawkins, particularly when asks why exactly she should respect other people’s religious views if she thinks they are rubbish. To further illustrate how anti-religion the Litvinoff’s are, Heller describes how upon receiving invitations to bar mitzvahs of their friend’s children, they would send them back with “THERE IS NO GOD” scrawled across the engraved lettering! But, while Rosa’s battle is theological, the other characters are also struggling with their own demons – Lenny with drugs and Karla with an unhappy marriage and having to think about what they believe in.
Even though it took me a little while to relate to the characters in this novel, I became really absorbed in it by the halfway point. I was particularly intrigued by Karla’s relationship with her smarmy husband Mike, and the budding love affair between her and Khaled, a shopkeeper at the hospital she works in. The characters are well drawn and often painful to imagine, caught up as they are in their internal problems and insecurities. Audrey particularly is spiky with a sharp cutting tongue who simultaneously made me wince and smile at her bitchy comments.
Going back to The God Delusion I found that, despite enjoying it and thinking it was a genuinely brilliant book (very highly recommended), it is by it’s very nature one long argument aimed at convincing the reader of a point of view. When I read The Believers, and the ideas about belief and religion Heller touched on, I realised that what I love about fiction is that it is thought provoking but leaves more room for making up your own mind. A definite thumbs up from me.