The Believers

The Believers

3.7 60
by Zoë Heller, Andrea Martin
     
 

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The book opens with a prologue set in mid-sixties London, where Joel Litvinoff, an American civil rights lawyer, meets a young Englishwoman, Audrey. After a brief and apparently casual affair, she decides to go to the United States and marry him.
 
The main narrative then commences in New York in 2002. Joel is 72 and approaching the end of a long and

Overview

The book opens with a prologue set in mid-sixties London, where Joel Litvinoff, an American civil rights lawyer, meets a young Englishwoman, Audrey. After a brief and apparently casual affair, she decides to go to the United States and marry him.
 
The main narrative then commences in New York in 2002. Joel is 72 and approaching the end of a long and illustrious career as an activist lawyer. He and Audrey live in Greenwich Village and have three adult children: two daughters, Rosa and Karla, and an adopted son, Lenny. Audrey is now an acid-tongued, domineering woman in late middle age who fiercely defends, but never questions, the political stance that has shaped her life. Her most tender feelings appear to be directed towards Lenny, a frequent drug user who is incapable of personal responsibility.
 
Karla, the neglected and under-appreciated oldest child, is a social worker who is married, not very happily, to Mike. They have been trying unsuccessfully to start a family. Rosa works with disadvantaged young girls. She is becoming increasingly interested in Judaism, a faith rejected along with all others by her Jewish parents. For this she is much derided by Audrey.
 
Joel suffers a stroke while in court and is in a coma for most of the time span covered by the book. Audrey is convinced he is not getting proper care in the hospital and creates difficulties for its medical staff. During this time of stress, Karla’s unhappiness with her marriage rises to the surface. She begins an affair with Khaled, originally from Egypt, who runs a newspaper store at the hospital where they both work. Rosa immerses herself in the study of Orthodox Judaism and, though she finds many of its teachings difficult to accept, though she perseveres. A stranger, Berenice Mason, introduces herself to Audrey, claiming that her son is Joel’s illegitimate child. Though Audrey initially dismisses her with contempt, it emerges that her story is true and that Berenice has been receiving regular financial support from Joel.
 
Lenny is persuaded by Audrey’s friend Jean to go to her country home in Pennsylvania for a month in order to get off drugs. He makes great progress there and, when Audrey visits, he proposes settling in Pennsylvania permanently. Appalled by the prospect of losing him, Audrey does her best to discourage the idea. Rosa abandons, and then takes up again, her studies in Orthodox Judaism deciding finally that she must pursue her religious intuitions.

Joel dies without regaining consciousness. At his funeral, which is attended by thousands, Audrey gives a eulogy in which she celebrates her 40-year marriage to her husband and makes a public acknowledgment of Berenice and her son. At the reception afterwards, Karla makes a last-minute, momentous decision regarding her own marriage.

Editorial Reviews

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.
From the Publisher
The Believers is funny, serious, well plotted and well written, sympathetic without being sentimental, thought-provoking and enjoyable; in short, that rare specimen every reader hopes for when opening a new book.”
The Globe and Mail

“An intelligent, darkly comic and richly entertaining read.”
Edmonton Journal

“In her portrait of an obsessive and manipulative school teacher [in Notes on a Scandal] . . . Heller displayed her undeniable gift for creating human beings who behave dreadfully. She’s at it again with The Believers.”
Calgary Herald

“Heller’s skewering of left-wing hypocrisy is so devilishly hilarious.”
Toronto Star

“Heller has a way with characters. . . . Her fine prose appears effortless.”
The Boston Globe

“An astonishingly well-observed, slow burner, it’s virtuoso prose compressed and beautiful.”
The Guardian

“Relevant, expansive, and subtle. . . . A writer of consistently high-class, understated and shattering fiction.”
— Lionel Shriver, the Daily Telegraph

“Heller’s writing in The Believers is never less than stunning: Her eye for detail and ear for dialogue are masterful, if unsettling.”
National Post

“Heller is at her best here.”
The Gazette

“Marriage, politics, religion - ha! . . . The Believers is easily Heller’s most ambitious and satisfying book.”
Globe and Mail (interview)

“Brilliant. . . . This novel’s blackly comic accounts . . . remind the reader of Ms. Heller’s ability, first glimpsed in [Notes on a Scandal].”
The New York Times

“Funny, sharp, caustic, deft and ruthless.”
The Mail on Sunday

“This is a novel rich in humour and packed with sparkling dialogue. Above all, it’s a funny and brilliant analysis of what makes families tick.”
Sunday Express

“A brilliant, brilliant book.”
Daily Mail

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781415964064
Publisher:
Random House Audio Publishing Group
Publication date:
01/01/2009

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

New York, 2002

At dawn, on the top floor of a creaking house in Greenwich Village, Joel and Audrey lay in bed. Through a gap in the curtains, a finger of light extended slowly across their quilt. Audrey was still far out to sea in sleep. Joel was approaching shore – splashing about in the turbulent shallows of a doze. He flailed and crooned and slapped irritably at his sheets. Presently, when the rattling couplets of his snores reached one of their periodic crescendos, he awoke and grimaced in pain.

For two days now, he had been haunted by a headache: an icy clanking deep in his skull, as if some sharp-edged metal object had come loose and were rolling about in there. Audrey had been dosing him with Tylenol and urging him to drink more water. But it wasn’t liquids or pills he needed, he thought: it was a mechanic. He lay for a few moments, holding the back of his hand to his brow like a Victorian heroine with the vapors. Then he sat up bravely and fumbled for his spectacles on the crowded bedside table. In a matter of hours, he would be giving the defense’s opening argument in the case of The United States of America v. Mohammed Hassani. Last night before falling asleep, he had made some last-minute amendments to his prepared address, and he was anxious to look them over.

Sometimes, in our earnest desire to protect this great country of ours, we can and do make errors. Errors that threaten to undermine the very liberties we are trying to protect. I am here to tell you that the presence of Mohammed Hassani in this courtroom today is one such error.

He squinted into the middle distance, trying to gauge the effectiveness of his rhetoric. Hassani was one of the Schenectady Six – a group of Arab Americans from upstate New York who had visited an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan during the spring of 1998. Over the last two months, the five other members of the group had all made deals with the prosecutors. But Joel hated to make deals: at his urging, Hassani had held out and pleaded not guilty to all charges.

You have been told that Mohammed Hassani is a supporter of terrorism. You have been told that he hates America and wants to aid and abet those who would destroy it. Allow me to tell you, now, who Mohammed Hassani really is. He is an American citizen with three American children and an American wife to whom he has been married for fifteen years. He is a grocer, a small businessman, the sponsor of a Little League team – a person who has lived and worked in upstate New York all his life. Does he possess strong religious beliefs? Yes. But remember, ladies and gentlemen, whatever the prosecution tries to suggest, it is not Islam that is on trial in this courtroom. Has Mr. Hassani voiced criticisms of American foreign policy? Certainly. Does this fact make him a traitor? No, it does honor to the constitutional freedoms upon which our country was founded.

The basis of Joel’s argument was that his client had been taken to the training camp under false pretenses. One of his acquaintances at the mosque he attended in Schenectady had deliberately misrepresented the camp as a religious center.

That’s right: Hassani traveled to Afghanistan on the understanding that he was to take part in a spiritual retreat. In the coming days, you will hear how he tried, on more than one occasion, to get out of participating in the camp’s mandatory weapons training – purposefully injuring himself in one instance so that he wouldn’t have to fire a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. You will hear how he categorically refused invitations from the camp leaders to become involved in violent actions back in the United States. Ladies and gentlemen, you may take issue with Hassani’s political and religious views. You may feel he is guilty of making an extremely poor vacation choice. But you cannot, in good conscience, convict this man of being a terrorist or even a terrorist sympathizer.

Joel glanced at his sleeping wife. Audrey disagreed with his strategy on this case. She maintained that he ought to be defending Hassani on grounds of legitimate Arab rage. Audrey took a much harder political line than he did on most things these days. He didn’t mind. In fact, he rather enjoyed the irony of being chastised for his insufficient radicalism by the woman to whom he had once had to explain the Marxist concepts of “base” and “superstructure.” When he complained that she had become an ultra-leftist in her old age, he did so in the indulgent tones in which another man might have teased his wife for her excessive spending at the mall. It was a feminine prerogative to hold unreasonable political views, he felt. And besides, he liked having some old-fashioned extremism about the house: it made him feel young.

Joel was still reading when, at 6:30, the radio alarm on his bedside table clicked into life. He peeled off his clammy pajama bottoms, rolled them into a ball, and lobbed them elegantly into the laundry basket. He had been a talented sportsman in his youth – the handball champion of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn – and he had never lost the jock’s habit of improvising minor athletic challenges for himself. He stood up now and stretched in front of the mirror on the closet door. At seventy-two, his nakedness was still formidable. His legs were strong. His chest, carpeted in whorls of gray hair, was broad. His penis was thick and long enough to bump companionably against his thigh as he strode out to the bathroom.

On the landing, he paused. Somewhere down below, he could hear the dim roar of a vacuum cleaner and the tuneless whistling of Julie, his sister-in-law. Ever since Julie had arrived from England two days ago with her husband, Colin, she had been flitting up and down the groaning Perry Street staircase with buckets, dusters, and antibacterial detergents in the saintly manner of Florence Nightingale bringing succor to a Crimean field hospital. Audrey was in a terrible snit about it. The implied insult to her own standards of cleanliness did not bother her, she claimed. (This was plausible: Audrey had always been rather proud of being a slob.) What bothered her was Julie’s faith in the redemptive power of lemony freshness and the assumption that others shared it. “If she wants to practice her neurotic hygiene back home, that’s one thing,” Audrey had hissed the night before, as she was getting into bed. “But I don’t see why I have to put up with her powdered fucking carpet fragrances in my house.”

After he had finished up in the bathroom, Joel put on sweatpants and a shirt and went downstairs. He found Julie on the second-floor landing, fitting the vacuum with a special nozzle for hard-to-reach corners. “Good morning! Good morning!” he cried as he stepped around her. In order to discourage prolonged interactions with his sister-in-law, he always addressed her as if he were calling to her from the window of a fast-moving train.

Down on the first floor, Colin was sitting at the kitchen table, reading a New York travel guide. “Good morning to you, kind sir!” he exclaimed when he saw Joel flashing by. “Julie and I are off to Ground Zero in a bit. Is these anywhere down there that you’d recommend for lunch?”

“Nope, sorry,” Joel said, as he hurried down the hall. “Can’t help you out there.”

“Might I offer you a cup of tea?” Colin called after him.

“No, thanks. I’m going out to get the papers.”

Joel was just opening the front door when he felt an answering push from the other side. “It’s me,” a voice said. “I forgot my keys.”

The door swung open to reveal Joel’s adopted son, Lenny, and Lenny’s girlfriend, Tanya, standing limply on the doorstep, holding paper cups of Starbucks coffee. Tanya was wearing a jacket of ragged rabbit fur over her minidress. Lenny was shivering in a T-shirt. They both had the spectral look of people who had not slept in some time.

“Ah, love’s young dream!” Joel cried with a facetious bow.

“Hey,” Lenny said. He was a tall man with a boyish, delicate face. Were it not for the gap between his two front teeth and the slight droop in his left eye, he would have been pretty. As it was, his raffish imperfections tipped the scale and made him beautiful.

“To what do I owe this rare pleasure?” Joel asked. Lenny was officially living back at home these days, but most nights, he slept at Tanya’s apartment.

Lenny cast a pale hand through untidy hair. “Tanya had a party at her place,” he said. “Somebody pissed on her bed, so–”

“Jesus!” The vehemence of Joel’s tone suggested that it was his own bed that had been violated. “What kind of friends do you have?”

Lenny made a gesture with his hands as if he were pushing down on some invisible volume control. “It’s no big deal, Dad. The guy didn’t mean to. . . . Can we come in? It’s freezing out here.”

“What do you mean, ‘didn’t mean to’?” Joel demanded. “He pissed on her bed by accident?”

“Whatever. Just forget it.” Lenny squeezed past Joel and headed into the kitchen. Tanya followed.

“Oh, sure, go ahead,” Joel shouted after them, “help yourselves to whatever you want. Mi casa es su casa . . .” He stood for a moment, registering the impotence of his sarcasm, and then went out, slamming the door behind him.

Walking up the street to the bodega, he twitched and muttered to himself in disgust. Was it unreasonable for a man of his age and station to expect some peace and solitude in the mornings? Was it too much to ask that he be allowed a few hours of quiet reflection at the start of a demanding day in court? He tried to calm himself down by thinking about his opening statement, but it was no good: his composure had been lost.

Joel was by and large a sanguine man. He regarded his sunny outlook not as an accident of temperament so much as a determined political stance. His favorite quotation – the one that he said he wanted carved on his gravestone – was Antonio Gramsci’s line about being “a pessimist because of intelligence and an optimist by will.” Lenny, alas, had a rare ability to penetrate the force field of his positive thinking. The very smell of the boy fucked with his internal weather: made him prey to itchy glooms and irritable regrets.

Twenty-seven years ago, when Lenny first came to live at Perry Street, Joel had been very high on the idea of subverting traditional models of family life. Adopting seven-year-old Lenny was no mere act of bourgeois philanthropy, he had maintained, but a subversive gesture – a vote for an enlightened, “tribal” system of childrearing that would one day supersede the repressive nuclear unit altogether. Lenny, however, had proved to be an uncooperative participant in the tribal program. As a child, he had tyrannized the household with violent tantrums. As an adolescent, he had dealt pot from the Perry Street stoop and repeatedly been caught shoplifting. At last, in adulthood, his petty delinquencies had blossomed into a range of drearily predictable and apparently irremediable dysfunctions. Joel would not have minded – or at least not have minded so much – had Lenny ever put his rebellious impulses to some principled use: run away to join the Sandinistas, say, or vandalized U.S. Army recruiting offices. But the boy’s waywardness had never served any cause other than his own fleeting satisfactions. “Lenny’s not doing well,” was Audrey’s preferred euphemism whenever he dropped out of some new, expensive college course, or got fired from the job that she had hustled for him at Habitat for Humanity, or set his hair alight while smoking crack, or was found having sex with one of the other residents at his rehab clinic. She chose to attribute such mishaps to the traumas of Lenny’s infancy. But Joel had had it with that psychological crap. The boy was a mendacious, indolent fuckup, that was all – a mortifying reminder of a failed experiment.

Coming back from the bodega, Joel worked up several elaborately snide remarks with which to taunt Lenny and Tanya, but on reentering the house, he found the kitchen empty. Colin and Julie had gone off on their sightseeing jaunt, and Lenny and Tanya had vanished upstairs, leaving their soggy-rimmed Starbucks cups on the kitchen table. Joel picked up the cups with a murmur of irritation and threw them into the trash. Then he switched on the coffee percolator and ambled into the living room to look at the papers.

At this hour of the morning, there was almost no natural light at the front of the house, and before sitting down, Joel had to wander about, turning on all the table lamps. Most of the residents on this eighteenth-century street had solved the problem of their low-ceilinged, north-facing parlors by tearing down the first-floor dividing walls and creating kitchen-dining floor-throughs. But Joel and Audrey sneered at the yuppie extravagance of these renovations. Neither of them was of the generation that had been taught to regard sunlit rooms as a birthright, and insofar as they were aware of interior design as an independent category of interest, they thought it a very silly business indeed. Over the years, they had assembled various artifacts and souvenirs pertaining to their travels and political involvements – an ANC flag signed by Oliver Tambo; a framed portrait of Joel, executed in muddy oils by a veteran of the Attica riots; a kilim depicting scenes from the Palestinian struggle – but there was not a single item of furniture here that could be said to represent a considered aesthetic choice. The love seat, upholstered in a nubby mustard tweed, had been given to them by Joel’s mother. The giant cherrywood cabinet and the collection of miniature china shoes it housed were an inheritance from Joel’s aunt Marion. A silver-plated andiron set, gamely arranged around the blocked-off fireplace, had come as barter payment from one of Joel’s clients.

Joel sat down now and, with practiced efficiency, began to fillet the papers for items relating to himself and today’s trial. The New York Times and the Washington Post had two more or less straightforward accounts of the case that mentioned his name, but without comment. In the New York Post, he found an editorial that made two passing references to him as “a rent-a-radical with a long history of un-Americanism” and as “a man whose knee-jerk leftism is thankfully now all but extinct in today’s political climate.”

He stared at the pile of newspapers for a moment and then took another pass, checking to see if he had missed anything. In a long career of defending pariahs, Joel had learned to expect and to treasure hostile public attention. It was the gauge by which he measured the importance and usefulness of his work. (“Joel never feels so alive,” Audrey liked to say, “as when someone is wishing him dead.”) Back in the 1980s when he had been defending al-Saddawi, the accused murderer of the Hasid leader Rabbi Kosse, protesters had organized rallies against him and put up posters around New York that read, “Litvinoff: Self-Hating Jew.” They had even made death threats against the children. By these standards, the animosity generated by the Hassani case had been disappointingly tame: one bomb threat to his uptown law office (deemed “not credible” by the police), a couple of people shouting “traitor” in the street. And one lousy mention in the Post. He looked at the editorial again. Well, they’d called him un-American; that was something.

He heard his wife coming down the stairs now. “Come look, sweetie,” he called out. “The Post is gunning for me!”

After a moment, Audrey appeared in the living room doorway – a thin woman of fifty-eight, with steel-colored hair and the dark, unblinking eyes of a woodland animal. She was wearing a denim skirt and a T-shirt printed with the slogan “One Nation Under Surveillance.”

Joel rustled his papers. “They say I’m a rent-a-radical.”

“Bully for you,” Audrey said.

“Did you know Lenny and Tanya were here?”

“I saw them.”

“Somebody urinated on Tanya’s bed last night. Can you believe it? Who are these people they hang around with?”

Audrey frowned, noticing that another of the living room’s floorboards had come loose. “Oh, do shut up, Joel,” she murmured.

Jadedness was Audrey’s default pose with her husband. She used it partly in the English manner, as a way of alluding to affection by manifesting its opposite, and partly as a strategy for asserting her privileged spousal status. The wives of great men must always be jealously guarding their positions against the encroachments of acolytes, and Audrey had decided long ago that if everybody else was going to guffaw at Joel’s jokes and roll over at his charm, her distinction – the mark of her unparalleled intimacy with the legend – would be a deadpan unimpressibility. “Oh, I forgot!” she often drawled when Joel was embarking on one of his exuberant anecdotes. “It’s all about you, isn’t it?”

“What do you want for breakfast?” she asked now.

“I’ll have a bialy,” Joel said.

Audrey looked at him.

“What?”
he said, glancing up after a moment. “I have to have carbohydrates sometimes. You want me to go to court on a bowl of yogurt?”

Audrey went into the kitchen.

“I can’t find the bialys,” she called out after a moment. “Are you sure we have any?”

Joel looked up from the papers. “Oh, come on! I thought you were going to get some. I asked you yesterday.” He smacked his hand against his newspaper. “Jesus!”

Audrey came back out to the living room and gazed at him archly. “It’s a tragedy, I know. How about a boiled egg?”

“I want a bialy, goddammit.”

Audrey stood and waited.

“All right, forget it,” he said sulkily. “Gimme the egg.”

He went upstairs now to shower and get dressed. In the kitchen, Audrey poured herself coffee and put a pan of water on the stove. She was about to return to the living room to look at the New York Post editorial when she heard shouting from above. Putting down her cup, she went to the foot of the stairs. “Joel?” There was no reply. With a sigh, she trekked up to the top floor landing, where she found her husband raging over an empty can of black shoe polish.

“Does no one but me ever replace anything in this house?” he demanded. “Would it be too much to ask that someone else bought fucking shoe polish around here?”

“Lenny must have finished it,” Audrey said calmly. “He used it the other night, when he went to that black tie thing with Tanya.”

The black tie detail was an unnecessary provocation, Joel thought. Audrey had an ignoble habit of dropping Lenny in it, so she might then rescue him.

“Jesus!” he shouted, taking the bait anyway. “What are we running here, a hostel for the unemployed? Next time, tell him to get his own.”

“Those aren’t the right shoes for that suit anyway,” Audrey said, gesturing at the brogues that Joel had been intending to polish. “You wear the other ones with the blue suit.”

She turned away in silent triumph and went back downstairs.

Shortly afterward, Joel followed her. With a dish towel tied around his neck to protect his shirt and tie, he ate the egg she had made for him and drank the coffee. Then he took her in his arms and kissed her. “I love you,” he said.

“Yeah, yeah.” Audrey helped him on with his coat and walked him out to the front step. “Do good,” she called, as he set off down the street.

Without turning around, or breaking stride, Joel raised a hand in acknowledgment. “Buy some bialys,” he called back.

In the taxi over to Brooklyn, Joel’s head pains grew worse. The metal object that was lodged in his skull had shifted to his frontal lobe now and seemed to be intent on boring its way out through his forehead. The cab driver was heavy on the brake, and the jerky motion of the car as it stopped and started its way through the heavy traffic on the bridge made him moan out loud. By the time he got out at Cadman Plaza, he was dangerously close to throwing up.

Standing on the curb, waiting for his nausea to subside, he felt a hand on his arm. He looked up to see his paralegal, Kate, peering at him with concern.

“Are you okay, Joel?”

“Sure.”

“You look a little pale.”

“I have a headache, is all.” Through the veil of his pain he registered a smattering of acne around Kate’s mouth and a smear of red lipstick on her teeth.

“You want me to get you an aspirin or something?” Kate asked.

Joel shook his head. “I’ve taken about fifty Tylenol in the last twenty-four hours. They’re making it worse, I think.”

“How about some water?” She brought out a plastic bottle from her bag.

Joel smiled wanly as he took the bottle. Dear, homely, reliable Kate. How well she looked after him! He had been doubtful, when he first hired her, about taking on such an unattractive girl. He had worried that it would be dispiriting to have to confront her tree-trunk legs and her abominable complexion every morning. But Kate’s devotedness and efficiency had more than made up for her aesthetic failings. And after so many years of complicated and time-consuming office imbroglios with female employees, there was, he had to admit, something rather soothing about not wanting to fuck his assistant.

“Okay,” he said, handing the bottle back. “I’m good.”

They went in through the glass doors of the Federal Courthouse and deposited their cell phones with a lady in a booth before joining the line at the security checkpoint. One of the uniformed men standing at the X-ray machine raised his arms in greeting. “Heeeey! Here he is! How ya doing, Mr. Litvinoff?”

Joel stared at him in mock consternation. “What happened, Lew?” He took off his watch and placed it, along with his keys, in a plastic tray on the conveyor belt. “They didn’t get rid of you yet? I thought for sure they would have fired you by now.”

Lew laughed heartily – a little more heartily than was strictly credible, it seemed to Joel. That was all right. Caring enough to fake mirth was its own sort of compliment. Joel passed through the metal detector and picked up his briefcase, keys, and watch on the other side.

“A big one today, right?” Lew said.

Joel shrugged. “They’re all big, Lew, they’re all big. I’ll see you later.”

“All right, Mr. Litvinoff, take it easy.”

In the elevator going up to the courtroom, Joel found himself pressed tightly against a young blonde. “Well!” He chuckled. “My lucky day.” The woman looked away disdainfully. He felt a moment’s befuddlement at the failure of his gallantry and then an urge to take the woman by the scruff of her neck and give her a good slap. But he pulled himself together and went on chatting to Kate in a loud, cheerful voice until they reached their floor.

Joel’s co-counsel, Buchman, a pink-faced kid from Virginia, had already arrived in the courtroom. Joel nodded hello to the prosecution team and stopped to say a few words to the court stenographer, a nice old gargoyle called Helen. Then he sat down and chatted with Buchman. Soon the jury filed in, emanating the usual stagy solemnity of citizens fulfilling their civic duty. Joel put his elbows on the desk in front of him and cradled his chin in his hands. He was feeling old. The elevator woman’s rejection had bothered him. His head was throbbing. The long day’s work loomed before him like a cliff face.

Hassani was brought up now from the holding cell, accompanied by three grimly corpulent guards. Joel stood up and stretched out his arms. “Assalamu alaikum!” A blush crept across Hassani’s solemn, beanshaped face as he found himself enfolded in an enthusiastic bear hug. Joel, whose personal affections tended to follow his political sympathies and who rarely managed to get through a case without falling a little in love with his client, was famous for his public expressions of tenderness toward the men and women he represented.

“You’re looking good, man!” he said, when at last he had released Hassani. “You’re looking good!” He rubbed at the circular impression that one of his suit buttons had left on Hassani’s cheek. The energy that he had expended on the hug had left him slightly dizzy, he realized. He sat down now and stared straight ahead, trying to regain his balance.

Now, the court clerk entered and asked the people to please rise for the judge. As Joel heaved himself up, he heard a tiny noise in his head – a brittle, snapping sound like a dry branch being broken underfoot. At the same time, a blurry, dark margin appeared at the corner of his vision. He was just wondering whether he ought to sit down again when the room tipped on its side.

No one reacted immediately when he fell to the floor. Several people would later admit that they had mistaken the collapse for one of his courtroom stunts. After a moment or two, however, things began to happen. The stenographer went over and took Joel’s pulse. Several journalists ran downstairs to put in calls to their newsrooms. Kate asked a policeman to radio for an ambulance. Hassani leaned over to Buchman and politely inquired about how he should proceed with finding a replacement lawyer.

Meet the Author

Zoë Heller was born in London in 1965 and educated at Oxford University and Columbia University, New York.  After writing book reviews for several newspapers she became a feature writer for the Independent and a columnist for the Sunday Times. She now writes for the Daily Telegraph, having been awarded the title “Columnist of the Year” for 2002.  She has also been a contributor to several magazines.

As a novelist, before writing The Believers, she published Everything You Know (2000) and Notes on a Scandal (2003), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for fiction and was made into a feature film starring Cate Blanchett and Dame Judi Dench.

 Zoë Heller lives in New York.

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Believers 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 59 reviews.
KCSullivan More than 1 year ago
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.
wendyroba More than 1 year ago
'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-

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.

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.

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.

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.

Recommended.
katknit More than 1 year ago
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.

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.
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piesmom More than 1 year ago
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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sarali2 More than 1 year ago
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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BridgetIA More than 1 year ago
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.
GailCooke More than 1 year ago
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
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
Sweetbabyj58 More than 1 year ago
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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harstan More than 1 year ago
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.

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.

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.

Harriet Klausner
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marciliogq More than 1 year ago
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.
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.
rosemaryb More than 1 year ago
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.