The Believers

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When a stroke fells radical New York lawyer Joel Litvinoff, a secret is revealed that forces Audrey, his wife, to reexamine everything she believed about their forty-year marriage. In the meantime Joel's children are struggling with their own dilemmas and doubts. Disillusioned revolutionary Rosa has been drawn into the world of Orthodox Judaism. Karla, a devoted—and married—social worker hoping to adopt a child, is falling in love with the owner of a newspaper stand. Lenny, the ne'er-do-well, faces yet another ...

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The Believers: A Novel

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When a stroke fells radical New York lawyer Joel Litvinoff, a secret is revealed that forces Audrey, his wife, to reexamine everything she believed about their forty-year marriage. In the meantime Joel's children are struggling with their own dilemmas and doubts. Disillusioned revolutionary Rosa has been drawn into the world of Orthodox Judaism. Karla, a devoted—and married—social worker hoping to adopt a child, is falling in love with the owner of a newspaper stand. Lenny, the ne'er-do-well, faces yet another relapse into heroin addiction. In the course of battling their own demons—and one another—the Litvinoffs must reexamine long-held articles of faith and decide what—if anything—they still believe in.

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Editorial Reviews

Joseph O'Neill
“A moving, deeply intelligent look at intellectual loyalties-to ideology, religion, family-and the humans attached to them. This is a wonderful novel.”
Richard Price
“A beautiful, oftentimes hilarious, razor-precise portrait of a family, a city, and an examination of the eternal and universal urge to embrace something, anything, greater than ourselves.”
Anne Enright
“Tough, wise and funny. . . . A sustaining, intelligent novel about how the big questions affect and change all our small lives.”
Lionel Shriver
“Profoundly satisfying. . . . Heller injects that difficult-to-pinpoint something-or-other that elevates soap opera to art. . . . The Believers pulses with . . . something deep and lasting and larger than mere story.”
Ron Charles
…if you need to like the characters to enjoy a novel, skip right on to something more heartwarming because Heller is the master of unpleasant people. It's a testament to her respect for the full spectrum of human nature that her fiercely drawn characters endure satiric exposure that would burn weaker ones to a crisp…Somewhere between the novels of Allegra Goodman and Claire Messud, The Believers charts out a terrain all its own. If you haven't read Heller yet, prepare to be converted.
—The Washington Post
Michiko Kakutani
Ms. Heller…is an extraordinarily entertaining writer, and this novel showcases her copious gifts, including a scathing, Waugh-like wit; an unerring ear for the absurdities of contemporary speech; and a native-born Brit's radar for class and status distinctions.
—The New York Times
Jill Abramson
As a meditation on radicalism and its impact on families, this is no American Pastoral, and the Litvinoffs are no tribe of Levov. But their struggles to find their beliefs—in themselves, in their ill father, in politics and religion—are absorbing. And the effort of the family to hold together as Joel, its centripetal force, ebbs away, keeps the novel moving along briskly. It's funny and sad at the same time…a compelling tale of familial self-discovery.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly

Heller (What Was She Thinking?; Notes on a Scandal) puts to pointed use her acute observations of human nature in her third novel, a satire of 1960s idealism soured in the early 21st century. Audrey and Joel Litvinoff have attempted to pass on to their children their lefty passions-despite Audrey's decidedly bourgeois attitude and attorney Joel's self-satisfied heroism, including the defense of a suspected terrorist in 2002 New York City. When Joel has a stroke and falls into a coma, Audrey grows increasingly nasty as his secrets surface. The children, meanwhile, wander off on their own adventures: Rosa's inherited principles are beleaguered by the unpleasant realities of her work with troubled adolescents; Karla, her self-image crushed by Audrey, has settled into an uncomfortable marriage and the accompanying pressure to have children; and adopted Lenny, the best metaphor for the family's troubles, dawdles along as a drug addict and master manipulator. Though some may be initially put off by the characters' coldness-the Litvinoffs are a severely screwed-up crew-readers with a certain mindset will have a blast watching things get worse. (Mar.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Heller (What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal) returns with an engrossing story of a severely dysfunctional New York family struggling to find its place in a quickly changing world. Joel Litvinoff, a famous civil rights lawyer, and his acerbic wife, Audrey, have spent their many years together as political protesters, raising their children with the same radical social consciousness. But when Joel suffers a stroke, the family, never a peaceful unit to begin with, loses what little cohesion it had. Eldest daughter Rosa, who had always mirrored her parents' views, decides to embrace Orthodox Judaism. Her meek and unattractive sister, Karla, a social worker married to a critical, arrogant union man, has an affair. Adopted son Lenny, an addict and ne'er-do-well, decides to sober up and get a job. Audrey remains in contention with all of them, angry that Rosa would stoop to religion, remorselessly picking on Karla's weight, and denigrating Lenny's efforts to remake his life apart from her. Heller writes with insight and honesty about the pain involved in testing one's beliefs and the possibility of growth in the process. Recommended for all fiction collections.
—Joy Humphrey

Kirkus Reviews
This sociopolitical comedy of manners concerning a radical lawyer in a coma is beyond the novelist's satiric command. The main problem with the latest from the British Heller (What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, 2003, etc.) is that it lacks focus. It could have focused on Joel Litvinoff, a famous activist attorney described by those who despise him as a "rent-a-radical with a long history of un-Americanism," but he's unconscious in his hospital bed for the bulk of the book. It wants to focus on his wife Audrey, like the novelist a British-born transplant to New York, whom the older Joel seduces in London when she is 18 and who remains married to him for 40 years. The problem is that Audrey is the least compelling character, with little explanation as to how she has become such a doctrinaire radical harridan (much more rigid than her husband), a "champagne socialist" hypocrite and unloving mother to her two daughters. Maybe Karla and Rosa, the daughters estranged from each other, could have provided the focus. The former is a heavy, good-hearted woman who must choose between her loveless marriage and an improbable affair. The latter is more attractive and resents the superficiality of her beauty; she is an extremist in everything she does, having returned from four years in Cuba to embrace, or at least investigate, the Judaism her parents long ago rejected (and which runs counter to her own feminism). Unfortunately, their stories only connect at the bedside of their comatose father, a center that cannot hold. Adopted son Lenny, from an even more radical family, mainly provides comic relief as his mother's marijuana supplier, until he cleans up. What promises to propel the narrativeis Joel's deep secret, revealed while he is unconscious, but even that seems on the periphery, before its unlikely resolution provides something of a climax. Tom Wolfe might once have had vicious fun with such material, but this novel lacks the edge to make it sharper than soap opera. Agent: Amanda Urban/ICM
The Barnes & Noble Review
Zoë Heller's much-lauded 2004 novel, What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal was a tour-de-force depiction of a family's unraveling. Heller's triumph in that book was to delve so deeply into the heads of the two main characters -- one of whom had been involved in an affair with her teenage student -- that it was impossible to feel entirely unsympathetic about their egregiously selfish actions. The Believers is a similarly careful portrait of a family in trouble. But this time, Heller has multiplied her perspective to focus on a cast of characters, shifted the drama to America, and invoked a whole new set of questions about the way families go awry.

The novel opens in London in 1962, where a mousy young woman, Audrey, is swept off her feet by a visiting American lawyer, Joel Litvinoff, at an otherwise dull party. Joel insists on accompanying Audrey to visit her parents the next day, squeezing in a date before he must return to the States. Having accelerated the get-to-know-you phase of their relationship, Joel wastes no more time and proposes that Audrey marry him. She accepts, and the two begin a life together in New York. The novel skips ahead 40 years and resumes in 2002, in Greenwich Village, where Audrey and Joel inhabit a ramshackle townhouse, with a revolving door for their friends and family. Now a hotshot civil rights lawyer, Joel is preparing to defend an Arab American who has visited an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and is accused of terrorism. Joel suffers a stroke the morning of the trial and abruptly bows out of the novel. As he lies in the hospital, his daughters and son assemble, bringing with them the full array of family hang-ups and hardships.

Karla, his perpetually overweight elder daughter, works as a hospital social worker but is unable to have a frank conversation with either her husband or mother. Karla's husband, Mike, is a bully: upon their discovery of Karla's inability to conceive, he decides that they will adopt a child, ignoring his wife's obvious reservations about becoming a mother.

Rosa, the younger daughter, has recently returned from an extended period of travel in Cuba, where her revolutionary activities blended with love affairs, neither leaving her with much to show for her time abroad. She has taken a job at an afterschool program for teenage girls in Harlem but seems to hold more contempt than care for her charges. The only thing that brightens her predominantly lackluster life is her newfound interest in Orthodox Judaism.

Lennie, the Litvinoffs' adopted son, is perhaps the most troubled and directionless of all the children. Although in his 30s, he is unable to complete even a paint job for his mother's friend. He dabbles in drugs, then dangerously experiments, and seems to have no sense of his own possibility. Audrey indulges and even ignores his failures, allowing him to perpetuate his self-abuse. While she doles out $20 bills to her son, she is equally generous in distributing scorn and derision to her daughters, making fun of Rosa's religion and openly criticizing Karla for her weight.

The sudden stress of Joel's stroke heightens these tensions, which are brought to a fever pitch by the emergence of Berenice Mason, Joel's longtime mistress, with whom he has fathered a child, now five years old. If there was one belief to which Audrey, the most cynical and disillusioned of all the characters, adhered, it was the goodness of Joel -- the man to whom she was devoted for 40 years. The appearance of Berenice shakes the ground beneath her feet, shattering the only faith she has had.

Despite all this discontent, The Believers is compulsively readable. One turns the pages not so much to learn what happens next, but to learn how the characters cope with their missteps, how they navigate the web of obligations, duties, and resentments in which they are caught. The frequent reversals in point of view prevent Heller from developing exceedingly intimate portrayals of her characters of the type that made Notes on a Scandal so extraordinary, but her alternation constructs a rounded, general vision of distress.

The recurring shift in perspective also augments the sense that Heller is juggling several different contemporary tropes. The Believers reminded me of Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, which dealt with privileged, overeducated, and underemployed young New Yorkers coming to terms with the post-9/11 world; at other times it recalled Allegra Goodman's Kaaterskill Falls, a book about Orthodox Jewish life in upstate New York (Rosa makes several pilgrimages to this region) and the push and pull of religious and secular forces. But if Heller has not confined herself to one portrait of misery -- and instead argues for the pervasiveness of the malady -- why should she constrain herself to one approach to her theme?

Paradoxically, this somber novel maintains a lively clip, losing its entertaining hold on us only occasionally, when the multiple viewpoints work to obscure the motives of individual characters. Few contemporary writers have Heller's ability to weave moments of lyricism into the everyday lives of her characters, and these moments keep her focus sharp. If the characters in The Believers all suffer some sort of crisis of faith, the novel itself leaves no doubt as to Heller's talents. --Chloë Schama

Chloë Schama's writing has appeared in the New York Sun and other publications.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061430213
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/19/2010
  • Series: P.S. Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 335
  • Sales rank: 976,625
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Zoë Heller

Zoë Heller is the author of Everything You Know and What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and made into an acclaimed film starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench. Heller lives in New York.


Although Zoe Heller made her initial splash with a series of addictively entertaining "girl about town" columns for Britain's Telegraph and Sunday Times, she has made the transition to literary fiction with a degree of success that can only be called extraordinary.

London-born and Oxford-educated, Heller acquired her M.A. from Columbia University in 1988. After graduate school, she returned to England, where she worked briefly in publishing, then as a journalist, book reviewer, and feature writer for various mainstream British newspapers. In the 1990s, she moved to New York and began chronicling her experiences as a single woman in the Big Apple. Her wry, witty, and outrageously confessional dispatches turned her into a household name in Britain and inspired a wave of Bridget Jones-style journalism that has never matched Heller's signature brio and artistic flair.

Despite the popularity of her columns, Heller began to feel confined by the kind of writing that had made her reputation. In 2000, she plunged into the choppy seas of literary fiction with a darkly comic novel entitled Everything You Know. Although it was savaged by the British press (a sour grapes-induced snubbing and drubbing Heller admits still stings), the book received enthusiastic reviews in the U.S. Writing in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called it ""A sparkling first novel...As affecting as it is amusing," and the Los Angeles Times called it "... a shrewdly funny portrayal of a first-class curmudgeon."

There was nothing mixed about the reception for Heller's sophomore effort. Released in 2003, Notes on a Scandal (incongruously entitled in the U.S. What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal), was an unqualified success. The story of an obsessive affair between a teacher and her underage student, the novel unfolds in the form of a manuscript written by the teacher's "friend," an embittered older colleague with a few obsessions of her own. The book was shortlisted for Britain's most prestigious literary award, the Man Booker Prize, and went on to become an acclaimed, award-winning film starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.

Following the success of Notes on a Scandal, Heller gave up her award-winning column, admitting that she was somewhat embarrassed by its egregiously autobiographical content. (In 2005, she told the Independent, "[T]he sound of the barrel being scraped became too resounding.") And while devoted fans still miss her wry, sly, self-deprecating articles, there is no question the literary world has gained a formidable talent. In the words of the American writer Edmund White, "Heller joins the front ranks of British novelists, right up there with Amis and McEwan." Lofty praise for a former Bridget Jones!

Good To Know

  • On her right shoulder, Heller sports a faded tattoo of a small, green tortoise. "I was 17," she explained in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. "On the Finchley Road. And I was with some boys who were getting naked women, the ace of spades and so on. I wasn't going to get a naked lady and it happened at the time that my favourite animal was a tortoise."

  • Heller's father, Lukas Heller, wrote Hollywood screenplays (including The Dirty Dozen and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?), and her mother was involved in politics, including the Save London Transport campaign.

    Some fascinating outtakes from our interview with Zoë Heller:

  • "My very first job was as a milkman's assistant on an electric milk float in London. (This was in the days when British homeowners got their milk delivered to their front doorsteps.) I was 14 at the time. It was an okay job, but the smell of stale milk tended to linger horribly on my clothes."

  • "I wish I could have been a jazz singer."

  • "I have two daughters. One is named Frankie Ray (Frankie after the 12-year-old protagonist of The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers; Ray for Ray Charles) The younger one is named Lula Nelson (Lula because we liked it -- and oddly enough it turns out to be the name that Carson McCuller's was given at birth; Nelson for Willie Nelson)."

  • "I am pathetically without hobbies. I like lying in a hammock with a gin and tonic and a book."

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      1. Also Known As:
        Zoë Kate Hinde Heller (full name)
      2. Hometown:
        New York, New York
      1. Date of Birth:
        July 7, 1965
      2. Place of Birth:
        London, England
      1. Education:
        B.A., St. Anne's College, Oxford, 1987; M.A., Columbia University 1988

    Read an Excerpt

    The Believers

    A Novel

    By Zoe Heller
    Copyright © 2009

    Zoe Heller
    All right reserved.

    ISBN: 978-0-06-143020-6

    Chapter One London, 1962

    At a party in a bedsit just off Gower Street, a young woman stood alone at the window, her elbows pinned to her sides in an attempt to hide the dark flowers of perspiration blossoming at the armholes of her dress. The forecast had been for a break in the weeklong heat wave, but all day the promised rain had held off. Now, the soupy air was crackling with immanent brightness and pigeons had begun to huddle peevishly on window ledges. Silhouetted against the heavy, violet sky, the Bloomsbury rooftops had the unreal, one-dimensional look of pasted-on figures in a collage.

    The woman turned to survey the room, wearing the braced, defiant expression of someone trying not to feel her solitude as a disadvantage. Most of the people here were students, and aside from the man who had brought her, she knew no one. Two men had separately approached her since she had been standing at the window, but fearful of being patronized, she had sent them both away. It was not a bad thing, she told herself, to remain composed on the sidelines while others grew careless and loud. Her aloofness, she fancied, made her intriguing.

    For some time now, she had been observing a tall man across the room. He looked older than the other people at the party. (Casting about in the exotic territory of old age, she had placed him in his early thirties.) He had a habit of massaging his own arms, as if discreetly assessing their muscularity. And from time to time, when someone else was talking, he raised one leg and swung his arm back in an extravagant mime of throwing a ball. He was either very charming or very irritating: she had not yet decided.

    "He's an American," a voice said. Audrey turned to see a blond woman smiling at her slyly. She was wearing a violently green dress and a lot of recklessly applied face powder that had left her nose and chin a queer orange color quite distinct from the rest of her complexion. "A lawyer," she said, gesturing across the room at the tall man, "His name's Joel Litvinoff."

    Audrey nodded warily. She had never cared for conspiratorial female conversation of this sort. Its assumption of shared preoccupations was usually unfounded in her experience, its intimacies almost always the trapdoor to some subterranean hostility. The woman leaned in close so that Audrey could feel the damp heat of her breath in her ear. The man was from New York, she said. He had come to London as part of a delegation, to brief the Labour Party on the American civil rights movement. "He's frightfully clever, apparently." She lowered her eyelids confidentially. "A Jew, you know."

    There was a silence. A small breeze came in through the gap in the window where it had been propped open with books. "Would you excuse me?" Audrey said.

    "Oh!" the woman murmured as she watched her walk away.

    Pressing her way through the crowd, Audrey wondered whether she had dealt with the situation correctly. There was a time when she would have lingered to hear what amusing or sinister characteristic the woman attributed to the man's Jewishness-what business acumen or frugality or neurosis or pushiness she assigned to his tribe-and then, when she had let the incriminating words be spoken, she would have gently informed the woman that she was Jewish herself. But she had tired of that party game. Embarrassing the prejudices of your countrymen was never quite as gratifying as you thought it would be; the countrymen somehow never embarrassed enough. It was safer, on the whole, to enjoy your moral victory in silence and leave the bastards guessing.

    Audrey halted now, at the sound of someone calling her name. Several yards to her left, a stout red-haired youth was standing between two taller men in an unwitting turret formation. This was Martin Sedge, her date for the evening. He was waving and beckoning, making little smoky swirls in the air with his cigarette: "Audrey! Come over here!"

    Audrey had met Martin three months before, at a conference of the Socialist Labour League in Red Lion Square. Despite being one year her junior, he was much more knowledgeable about political theory-much more experienced as an activist-than she was, and this inequality had given their friendship a rather pedagogical cast. They had been out together four times, always to the same grimy pub around the corner from where Audrey worked, and on each of these occasions their conversation had swiftly lapsed into tutorial mode, with Audrey sipping demurely at her shandy, or nibbling at a pickled egg, while Martin sank pints of beer and pontificated.

    She did not mind being talked at by Martin. She was keen to improve herself. (On the flyleaf of the diary she was keeping that year, she had inscribed Socrates' words, "I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.") There was a girlish, renunciatory streak in her that positively relished Martin's dullness. What better proof could there be of her serious-mindedness-her rejection of the trivial-than her willingness to spend the spring evenings in a saloon bar, absorbing a young man's dour thoughts on the Fourth International?

    Tonight, however, Martin seemed at pains to cast off his austere instructor's persona. In deference to the weather and to the festive nature of the occasion, he had forgone his pilled Shetland sweater in favor of a short-sleeved shirt that revealed his pink, ginger-glazed forearms. Earlier in the evening, when he had met Audrey at the Warren Street tube station, he had kissed her on the cheek-a gesture never hazarded before in the short history of their acquaintance.

    "Audrey!" he bellowed now, as she approached. "Meet my mates! Jack, Pete, this is Audrey."

    Audrey smiled and shook Jack and Pete's wet hands. Up close, the three men were a small anthology of body odors.

    "You out of drink?" Martin asked. "Give me your glass, and I'll get you another. It's bedlam in that kitchen."


    Excerpted from The Believers by Zoe Heller Copyright © 2009 by Zoe Heller . Excerpted by permission.
    All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
    Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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    Reading Group Guide

    1. Did you find your opinions of the characters in The Believers changed as you read the book?

    2. Are there characters that you ended up feeling more positive or sympathetic towards than others?

    3. Choosing two characters, can you give examples of personality traits you find appealing and unappealing about each?

    4. Do you find that the book’s wit helps to make the family tensions more bearable, or do you find the humour uncomfortable?

    5. Do you find the men and the women in the book to be equally rounded characters?

    6. What influence does Joel have on the family after his stroke, when he is in a coma?

    7. Are there aspects of the book that you feel are unfairly critical of people’s political, moral or religious beliefs?

    8. Do you feel that the beliefs and self knowledge the characters end up with are more genuine than those they start out with?

    9. Discuss how you think the lives of the members of the Litvinoff family will continue during the months after the funeral. How closely will each of them stick to the decisions they have made?

    10. What are your feelings about Audrey’s eulogy at Joel’s funeral?

    11. What motivates Audrey’s apparent change of heart regarding Berenice?

    12. Do you consider the book to present belief in a negative or positive light?

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    Customer Reviews

    Average Rating 4
    ( 60 )
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    See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 60 Customer Reviews
    • Posted May 10, 2009

      more from this reviewer

      I Also Recommend:

      Heller Hits a Homer

      In Zoe Heller's third novel she explores the nature of belief through the off-beat and often off-putting Litvinoff family. Heller is known for her hard to like characters and this cast is no exception. The philandering patriarch Joel, his long suffering and shrewish wife Audrey,the miserable and conflicted Karla and her sister Rosa, a disillusioned radical socialist turned Orthodox Jew. Not to be forgotten is the adopted youger brother Lenny, a poster boy for solipsism and self-destruction.
      Heller's brilliance lies in her ability to tackle weighty themes through the creation of multi-dimensional and complex characters. You may not love them but in the end they do seem all too real to you.

      1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    • Posted November 18, 2008

      more from this reviewer

      Thought-provoking Story With Original Characters

      'The rabbi shrugged. ¿Faith is hard, Rosa. Nonbelievers often speak of faith as if it were something easy, a cop-out from the really tough business of confronting a meaningless universe, but it¿s not. It¿s doubt that¿s easy.' - From The Believers-<BR/><BR/>When Audrey Howard meets Joel Litvinoff - a radical American lawyer - at a party in London in 1962, she is a shy and unsure young woman. But years later, now married to Joel and living in New York City, Audrey has remade herself into a brash, foul-mouthed liberal who views the world cynically and lashes out at everyone around her. When Joel collapses from a stroke and lapses into a coma, Audrey is forced to face not only her out of control temper (and the consequences of it), but her loyalty to a serial adulterer whose shadow she has always lived within.<BR/><BR/>The Litvinoff family is a complex, rather dysfunctional group of people. Rosa, the youngest daughter, is struggling with her Jewish roots and lack of faith; Karla, the eldest daughter, finds herself in a loveless marriage and struggles to develop enough self-esteem to seek the happiness she is not sure she deserves; and Lenny, the adopted son, battles drug addiction. Despite the strong personality of their father, the Litvinoff children are really more influenced by Audrey - whose boredom with motherhood and barely concealed anger at the world (and her husband in particular) dominate their lives.<BR/><BR/>Zoe Heller has written a thoughtful and provocative book about politics and religion. Thematically, she explores how individuals discover themselves, while residing within a family whose beliefs threaten to suffocate their uniqueness. Heller¿s ironic style and black humor are effective in teasing out the pitfalls of all belief systems - whether they be ¿politically correct,¿ religious, or socially radical. By choosing a mostly unlikeable protagonist (Audrey), Heller risks alienating her readers. But, instead, her ability to balance the character¿s negative traits with the very real human emotions of fear, isolation, and grief allows for empathy.<BR/><BR/>I enjoyed the twists and turns of this cerebral novel which moves steadily forward as each character resolves their conflicts - both externally and internally. This is a book which will create great discussion about the core beliefs individuals carry as they stumble through their lives.<BR/><BR/>Recommended.

      1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    • Posted November 10, 2008

      more from this reviewer

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      Betrayals and beliefs

      When ultra-liberal defense attorney Joel Litvinoff succumbs to a stroke, falling into a coma, his family is burdened with all the sorrows and anxieties that usually accompany such misfortunes. But the Litvinoff "tribe" is anything but typical. There's wife Audrey, the waspish, strident English ex-pat who viewed motherhood as a distraction, and first child Rosa, who is struggling rather blindly to live up to her parents' socialist principles. Karla is the second-born, beaten down to self-loathing by her upbringing, her husband, and her chronic weight problem. Finally, Lenny, adopted (read "rescued") at age 4, the only one who stimulates Audrey's maternal feelings, and the poster child for learned helplessness. The three Litvinoff siblings are in their 30's now.<BR/><BR/>The Believers is a character-driven satire of a novel, written with psychological insight and, at times, biting humor. Author Heller displays a fine mastery of dialog, wit, and irony. There is not a single extraneous word between these covers. The Litvinoffs, among themselves, have enough emotional problems to support an army of mental health workers. No one, no matter how loved, is spared the vitriol of Audrey's zingers, and gradually, the wellspring of her bitterness reveals itself. While it is often uncomfortable to read about their inner turmoil, injections of sanity are provided by supporting characters, most notably Audrey's friend Jean and mother-in-law Hannah, and Karla's friend Khaled. Heller makes the uneasiness well worthwhile with a brilliant, authentic ending. Perhaps she'll write more about these people; I certainly hope that's the case.

      1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    • Posted May 7, 2010

      A Good Read

      I enjoyed this novel better than 'Notes on a Scandal.' The characters were interesting and I liked the ideas they represented even though I didn't find any of them particularly sympathetic. This is more a thinkers read than an episodic novel but it was still a page turner for me.

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    • Posted May 14, 2009

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      May 14, 2009. I heard about this book on NPR and am so happy that I decided to read it. Zoe Heller's quirky characters and the interaction among the family members kept me thinking about them long after the book was finished.

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    • Posted April 10, 2009

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      Great characters and story line that taps into the dysfunctional ties of this somewhat "american" family

      I heard about this book on NPR and am so happy that I picked it up. Zoe Heller does an exceptional job at painting a picture of the dysfunctional ties that can bind or break a family. I liked reading about each of the characters and the obstacles that they faced in life. I am looking forward to her next book.

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    • Posted April 6, 2009

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      Following her second novel, What Was She Thinking? Notes On A Scandal,which was not only a Booker Prize finalist but also made into an Oscar nominated film, Zoe Heller presents an insightful, deftly layered
      study of a dysfunctional New York family.

      The author unflinchingly details the derailment of the Litvinoff family after father Joel, is felled by a major stroke which leaves him in a coma. He is a lawyer well known for his political views as well as impassioned defenses of radicals and terrorists. Wife, Audrey is a thoroughly disagreeable woman who disparages their daughters, Rosa and Karla, at every turn.

      After some 40 years of marriage she considers her acerbic comments to be rather charming, sort of beguiling when they are in reality mean spirited and cruel. Karla is an overweight social worker married to Mike, a union organizer, who worships her father. They are unsuccessfully trying to have a child with perfunctory love making that leaves Karla wondering why or how her life came to this.

      Rosa, although raised in a Jewish family devoid of any religious beliefs, finds herself strangely drawn to an Orthodox faith. She attends a synagogue and participates in a Shabbaton, which she describes as "an extended Sabbath with extra lectures and things" in response to Audrey's insulting, irreverent questions.

      No peace or congeniality is to be found anywhere in the Litvinoff clan, certainly not between Audrey and Joel's mother, Hannah, who bicker as "In his silence, Joel had become a perfectly passive prize, an infinitely interpretable symbol: a Sphinx whose meanings and ownership they could squabble over forever, without fear of decisive contradiction."

      Revelations occur as the story progresses and without Joel as the patriarchal glue that holds them all together each must make decisions for themselves, discover who they are and what they want to be.

      The pleasure of reading "The Believers" is found in Heller's astute observations of human behavior, her pinpoint characterizations, and flawless, imaginative prose. Who else would describe a dream that Audrey cannot remember as images that were "slipping away from her grasp, like the prizes in a fairground machine falling from the clumsy mechanical claw." ?

      For this reader, Heller is a literary giant, both funny and intelligent, always thought provoking and entertaining.

      - Gail Cooke

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    • Anonymous

      Posted March 29, 2009


      I read the reviews on this book and took a chance and purchased it. I love this book. I love her extensive vocabulary. Great writer!

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    • Posted March 23, 2009

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      I loved this book and this quirky family. It got such great reviews that I had to read it. I was not disappointed and would highly recommend it to anyone. This is the first book I've read by this author and hope she'll keep on writing.

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    • Posted February 13, 2009

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      interesting family drama

      Over four decades since the 1960s leftist activism of their youths, Audrey and Joel Litvinoff had hoped their children would have some of their enthusiasm. However, instead they live radically different lives than their parents as each of the trio attempts to escape from what they perceive has become perpetual hypocritical activism. Rosa works with troubled teens which leave her questioning right from wrong as defined by her parents. Following a Castro period, Karla has turned to marriage to escape her parents and their unending drone beat of get involved. Lenny has turned to drug addiction as his escapism.<BR/><BR/>Even Joel and Audrey have changed. Joel relishes his role as star attorney to the ¿Un-American¿ while Audrey has become shrewish re her mantra you are either part of the solution or part of the problem while sipping expensive champagne. She especially turns ugly when Joel falls into a coma after a stroke and his hypocrisy surfaces.<BR/><BR/>This is an interesting family drama as the activist parents head into late middle age, their offspring rebel against their refrain in differing ways. The five Liviniff brood are fascinating antagonists with differing personalities. However, none takes charge of holding the story line together. Instead the premise feels in many ways as an ensemble cast running from each other even when all gather at the hospital. Thus the parts are intriguing and well written but are greater than their sum.<BR/><BR/>Harriet Klausner

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    • Posted December 31, 2008

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      How worthy is to defend strongly your own beliefs?

      The believers, as the own title shows, is about beliefs.The story happens one year after 9/11 events and questions much about "the American dream" and how people live in their own beliefs prison without considering either how a thought, even a word can destroy or giving continuity to beliefs without questioning them.<BR/>After Joel's stroke, his whole family lives a frame of conflicts and what we see is a narrative building of individual dramas allied to the familiar one.Each child has its own conflict: Karla, in a constant fight against weight lose and to become pregnant. Rosa with her inclinations to Jewish in a non-religious family and Lenny in his eternal war against drugs, violence, rehab clinics, childhood traumas and the abandon of a prisoner mother.What is most impressive in the book is how we, readers, can oscilate between love and hate in relation to some characters.The most unpredictable, sardonic, acid and distasteful character is Audrey. A hating and adorable surprise at the same time revealed as reading goes on. All of the characters are constantly defending their own beliefs. As "believers" and "defenders" of their own convictions they hurt others' beliefs. It's a real and human book. Highly recomendable.

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    • Posted December 23, 2008

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      The Believers

      I also read this as a preview book. Having family in England, I could well understand the dialogue and writing style. I thought the author defined the characters well. However, that doesn't make them likable. They are all deeply flawed yet I'm not sure the author portrayed them as redeemable. The story revolves around a main character who suffers a stroke and remains in a coma. You never do get to hear his side of the story to understand his motivations in life. And he led a larger life than most. The story then must focus on Audrey, Joel's wife, and their children. How they react to the man they knew as a husband and a father when they discover some unexpected truths leads each to examine their own lives and how he shaped each one of them.

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    • Posted December 7, 2008

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      Notes on The Believers

      In "Notes on a Scandal," Zoe Heller created, with consummate skill, characters that were flawed, pathos-filled and unavoidably human. The characters may have not been particularly likeable, but they were recognizable. The expectation that Ms Heller would have evolved and demonstrated greater finesse in character portrayal in this novel would have been justified; but in "The Believers," Ms Heller has over-reached herself. The Litvinoffs are a raft of characters that are flawed, derisively pathetic and, caricaturesque. By trebling her cast of main characters, the focus (foci?) is diffuse and the overall theme (belief as a crutch) fails to galvanize the novel.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted December 1, 2008

      Predictable plot

      Although the characters are very personable, the entire plot was very predictable, no suprises, unable to grasp the reader.

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    • Posted December 1, 2008

      The Believers is a disappointing read

      Zoe Heller's newest novel, The Believers, was a disappointing read for me. Being new to Ms. Heller's writing style, I was initially impressed by her prose and intrigued by the introduction to the novel. Once I finished reading the novel, I was left feeling somewhat ambivalent with the outcome. Although each character was richly developed, and at times I found myself almost liking them, by the end of the novel I was filled with both disdain and pity for nearly all of the characters. I was so disappointed and felt rather frustrated that they were each ultimately so weak or unlikeable. The novel follows the lives of Audrey and her three grown children after the initial stroke, coma, and eventual death several months later of her husband, Lenny. Each character is given opportunities to experience both change and personal growth, and while some of the characters come very close to becoming stronger and more fulfilled, ultimately none of them are able to truly impliment any changes to their lives at all. They each resolutely go back to the same miserable existances they started out in. I really wanted to like this novel and the characters as I read about them clear to the end of the novel. Unfortunately once I finished the novel, I really didn't like it or any of the characters at all. I'm sorry to say I probably won't be recommending it to anyone I know.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted November 29, 2008

      Many flawed characters makes for interesting read!

      I found that I dislked all the characters in the book, which made it even more interesting. Very interesting read.

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    • Posted November 24, 2008

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      One of the best books I have had the oportunity to read in advance. The intriguing narrative and reality of characters linked to some humour and nice vocabulary choices give this book a fluid reading and will to discuss about.

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    • Posted November 23, 2008

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      Smart and Compelling

      This book struck a cord with me. It is a compelling account of a family who when faced with a crisis find their beliefs challenged. The characters struggle with everyday life yet there was humor throughout the story. This was a great book by a great author and I highly recommend it.<BR/><BR/>I also receommend "She's Come Undone" by Wally Lamb and The Memory Keeper's daughter by Kim Edwards.

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    • Posted November 21, 2008

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      3 stars

      The beginning of the book starts off interesting, but as it goes on, I found some of the chapters boring. The way that the book is set up is each chapter is about a certain character. One chapter is about character A, the other about B, the other about C, and then back to A, and so on. I found the chapters about one character very boring. I also disliked this character because of her bad attitude all the time. I did not find the book very funny, but some lines did make me giggle. This book is basically about a messed up family that get's even more messed up during the book.

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    • Posted November 21, 2008

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      Intelligent, Witty, and Darkly Funny Satire

      The Believers is an intelligent, witty, darkly funny satirical novel.<BR/><BR/>In 1962, Joel and Audrey were two philanthropic young people who devoted their lives to liberal and socialist ideals. Fast Forward to 2002. After 40 years of marriage and dutiful social awareness, this supposedly altruistic, steadfast, and principled duo has proven to be completely deficient and callous in their own personal interactions ---parenting, marriage, friendship, and communication. They are, laughably, the perfect image of dysfunction and as a result, their children have, each in their own way, become the poster-children for the painful journey to self-actualization¿.and we get to go along for the ride! <BR/><BR/>Well-crafted and compelling, this novel is a testament to whom/what we might become when we aren¿t looking.

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