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The Believers
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The Believers

3.7 60
by Zoe Heller

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When radical New York lawyer Joel Litvinoff is felled by a stroke, his wife, Audrey, uncovers a secret that forces her to reexamine everything she thought she knew about their forty-year marriage. Joel’s children will soon have to come to terms with this discovery themselves, but for the meantime, they are struggling with their own dilemmas and doubts.



When radical New York lawyer Joel Litvinoff is felled by a stroke, his wife, Audrey, uncovers a secret that forces her to reexamine everything she thought she knew about their forty-year marriage. Joel’s children will soon have to come to terms with this discovery themselves, but for the meantime, they are struggling with their own dilemmas and doubts.

Rosa, a disillusioned revolutionary, has found herself drawn into the world of Orthodox Judaism and is now being pressed to make a commitment to that religion. Karla, a devoted social worker hoping to adopt a child with her husband, is falling in love with the owner of a newspaper stand outside her office. Ne’er-do-well Lenny is living at home, approaching another relapse into heroin addiction.

In the course of battling their own demons—and one another—the Litvinoff clan is called upon to examine long-held articles of faith that have formed the basis of their lives together and their identities as individuals. In the end, all the family members will have to answer their own questions and decide what—if anything—they still believe in.

Hailed by the Sunday Times (London) as "one of the outstanding novels of the year," The Believers explores big ideas with a light touch, delivering a tragic, comic family story as unsparing as it is filled with compassion.

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

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

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.

What People are Saying About This

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.”
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.”
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.”

Meet the Author

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.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
July 7, 1965
Place of Birth:
London, England
B.A., St. Anne's College, Oxford, 1987; M.A., Columbia University 1988

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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.

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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.