* Prices may differ from that shownMore Offers
I recently read "Everything You Know" by Zoe Heller, which evoked a mix of opinions from me. Did I love it or hate it? A bit of both to be honest. But it was well written and engaging so bearing this in mind I decided to read another of her novels, "The Believers". This novel is decidedly different from her debut and focuses on the family of a famous New York socialist lawyer. When Joel, the matriarch head of the household suffers a stroke, a secret about his past is revealed which throws wife Audrey's life into turmoil. At the same time daughter Rosa is dabbling with Orthodox Judaism, middle daughter Karla is in the midst of an extra-marital affair and adopted son Lenny is back on drugs. Each family member has to grapple with their own demons as they reassess just what it is that they really believe in. Joel is in a coma for most of the story which is a shame as he came across as the most likeable member of his family. After reading Ms Heller's previous novel, she seems to have a knack for creating despicable characters, and has done this with Joel's wife, 59 year old Audrey, who is rude, foul-mouthed and downright vicious at times. The only redeeming features for Audrey are the strong love that she feels for her husband and adopted son Lenny. But at the same time she shows little love or concern for Rosa or Karla and at times is downright brutal towards them. The reasons for this are explained but they didn't help me empathise with Audrey, and when Joel's secret was revealed I can't say that I felt much pity for her predicament. She has a good friend, Jean, who supports her throughout the book's events although I failed to see why Jean would even bother with such a nasty person. Rosa is unpredictable and wild, coming across as somewhat uncertain of who she is. She had modelled herself as a communist and spent some time in Cuba, but has since returned to New York where she works with underprivileged black kids and is in the process of becoming an Orthodox Jew. The theme of Judaism runs through the book as the family are non-practicing Jews, with the exception of Rosa, who becomes unsure whether she really believes in Judaism or if she simply enjoys the comfort of the rituals. I did find this slant quite interesting as Judaism is something I know little about. Karla is insecure and thinks little of herself, not helped by the fact that her mother constantly criticises her and her husband has more or less told her that he married her for her mind, not her looks. They are currently trying to conceive but are constantly failing, to the disappointment and annoyance of both her husband and her mother. On the plus side, Karla at least has a good career, and has tried to convince herself that this is the life she wants but a chance encounter with a man at her work has left her questioning just how happy she really is. Lenny is the youngest, in his early 30s, and is adopted. He is on and off drugs and is mollycoddled by Audrey who forgives him every wrong, treats him like a child and is constantly funding him. I liked Karla because I felt for her, due to the way she is treated by her husband and mother, and the motivation for her to do what she does is clear to see. Rosa I found to be more of a mystery, but I did wonder if this is partly due to the fact that she is a mystery to herself. She seems to be trying to be many different people and not really fitting in anywhere. Lenny was sadly underdeveloped; although there were chapters from the points of view from his sisters, there was nothing from his point of view which is a great shame because I know from reading Ms Heller's debut that she can write male characters wonderfully. I felt at times that he was thrown into the story as a pawn to illustrate more about Audrey's character than for any reason in his own right. Throughout the novel, the characters' stories intertwine and knit together as each of them find their belief systems shaken to the core. The plot is well constructed and the writing style is wonderful although I always felt that something was being held back; I felt I never really got to know the characters as well as I would have liked. It felt as if I was watching them from somewhere far away, I never really felt involved which is a shame as I think I would have enjoyed the book that bit more if I felt more for them. The book comes to a satisfactory conclusion although I was a bit unsure about the speech that Audrey makes towards the end - what she says and does is a nice gesture but I didn't feel it rang quite as true as it should have. Overall this makes for an interesting study of a dysfunctional family. I love such stories so it was intriguing to see how they reacted and what their motivations were, although like I said I never felt I got to know them well enough to fully sympathise with them. The real gem in this bok is the wonderful prose and writing style so it's worth it for that alone.
This is one of two basic story types, as I see it. There are the self-contained stories that have a clear start and a finish, and you're not left feeling as if you need to know any more or less about the characters in question, and then there are books like this. This is one of those where it feels just like when I used to sit at the top of the stairs listening to my parents talking about something intriguing to their friends downstairs. I'd be sitting wondering what I'd missed before this part of the conversation, and then, frustratingly, they'd close the door, or someone would have a coughing fit, just at the most crucial point of the story, and I'd miss the conclusion too. Not that I want to make this sound like a poorly-plotted or badly-written book. Far from it. It's just that I was left feeling as if I wanted to know more, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The story begins with a short prologue on how Audrey and Joel met each other back in 1962, in London. It then fast-forwards to them living in New York, having been married for 40 years, with their three children (now in their 20s or 30s)- Rosa, Karla and Lenny. When Joel suffers a stroke and is left in a coma in hospital, a secret emerges that turns Audrey's world upside down. At the same time, we follow the lives of both Rosa and Karla and, to a much lesser extent, Lenny. Rosa is the eldest daughter and has always been unpredictable. With her father being a radically socialist lawyer, she sees herself as something of a ruthless communist, and has recently returned from a four year period of living as a Cuban in Cuba. However, things become confusing for her when she makes the snap decision of stepping into a synagogue out of curiosity about her family's heritage, and finds her whole belief system and way of life challenged by a new-found attachment to Orthodox Judaism. Karla, being the middle daughter, is highly insecure as she never got the same kind of attention or acceptance from her parents that her two siblings received. She's married to a man who thinks he could have done better in terms of looks and personality but likes the fact that she understands him. She thinks she's happy, or at least accepting of the relationship, until a chance encounter at work with a slightly tubby Egyptian man with a bald spot (her own description, though I can't find the exact quotation!) throws everything up in the air. Lenny is the youngest, and was adopted at a young age. He's addicted to pot and is reluctant to let go of his mother's apron strings, or her purse strings, for that matter. In fact we don't really hear a lot of the story, if any, from his perspective. He appears to be in the book solely as a part of Audrey's story. The style in which this is written is excellent- Zoe Heller comes across as a highly intelligent writer, well-educated and capable of frequent dry wit. However, 'The Believers' is also a bit like your average chick-lit book, in that it follows the lives of several women on a voyage of self-discovery. There's even the archetypal insecure female who gradually gains confidence thanks to some life-changing event. The difference is as mentioned above i.e. she writes in quite an intellectual style. The resulting blend of subtle humour, intellectually thought-provoking subject matter and female chick-lit prototypes produces something like a Margaret Atwood- Marian Keyes hybrid of a story, and one that is a pleasure to read. The one major weakness of the whole thing is that Heller doesn't take the risk of attempting to write a male character. As a result, Lenny is, as mentioned, something of a pointless character who appears to have very little relevance to the story and very little personality of his own. I think that if Heller really felt him necessary to the story as a whole then it would have been worth taking the risk of writing part of the book from his perspective, albeit in the third person. As it is, he sits uncomfortably on the fence, as a relatively prominent figure but without much significance, which just feels false. Another possible weakness is in Heller's portrayal of New York, as she's British, rather than American, and I remember how incongruous some of Niffenegger's writing about London seemed! However, I have no way of knowing whether she writes convincingly about New York. I can only assume most of the language and cultural points are accurate, as she does at least live there. The best part of reading this, for me, was the new understanding I came away with concerning Judaism and the reasons why certain practices are adhered to. I suppose Heller's explanations are probably true to life, since her father was / is a German Jew- whether this is the case or not, it has aroused my curiosity sufficiently for me to want to go away and find out more for myself.