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Zoe Heller. The Believers.

Zoe Heller. The Believers. New York. HarperCollins. 2009 ([c]2008). 335 pages. $25.99. ISBN 978-0-06-143020-6

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The irony of Zoe Heller's title is delectable because so many of her characters want so desperately to have a true calling or passion and yet miss the mark pretty widely, while those who exhibit their passionate beliefs before the cheering or jeering masses have feet of clay. But perhaps that is the way the world works--Heller's world, at least. Among the beliefs the novel examines are Orthodox Judaism, socialism, unionism, and, perhaps most perversely, cynicism. The last creates the harshest and simultaneously most interesting and dislikable character. It is no small feat to create a character like Audrey Litvinoff, wife of the William Kunstler-like lawyer Joel Litvinoff, who is mostly offstage in a coma.

The novel opens in 2962 and, seventeen pages later, having set in motion the Audrey/Joel romance that begets the family Litvinoff, leaps to 2002. This gap leaves the reader in something of a quandary and yet demands that her imagination fill in the forty-year hiatus. Via what circumstances could the young man and woman we met earlier have become the full-fledged adults we see in New York not long after the fateful events of 9/11, when Joel Litvinoff is defending an accused terrorist, Hassani?

This is the saga of a family that is hard to love but very difficult to ignore. The characters have been crafted lovingly and with idiosyncrasies that keep one attentive to their fates, except perhaps the erstwhile son who is adored beyond comprehension by Audrey. At the same time, these characters provide Heller with an opportunity to satirize contemporary society. Rosa, the lovely and single do-gooder for whom serving underprivileged girls is not enough, turns to Judaism with some brilliant and hilarious consequences. The mikvah and other rituals may be easy targets, but Heller uses a deft scalpel to dissect them. And the joyless, overweight sister Karla is married to union activist Mike, whose staunch liberal principles are called into question when he sells out to what is politically expedient, in this case a Republican, and rather enjoys basking in the reflected radical glitz of his lauded in-laws a bit too much. No wonder she is lured elsewhere.

Yes, there are flaws, very human ones, all around; these are a major part of what makes the novel vibrant and captivating. And at the center is Audrey. Do we love to hate her? I doubt it, since it's very hard to believe she is simply mean-spirited. As with Heller's other distasteful yet fascinating leading ladies (see Notes on a Scandal), the truth is more complex. Here the reader is forced to wonder what she gives up when a woman joins her fate to a man who is adulated for his beliefs. Must they become hers? Is she simply an adjunct to fame? And, in reality, what does that do to her soul? Her identity? Zoe Heller has posed these questions and given a few answers, but in the end, I don't believe in Audrey's final actions. As is often the case, it's difficult to find a satisfactory ending for a story, even one as good as this.

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Rita D. Jacobs

Montclair State University
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Author:Jacobs, Rita D.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2010
Words:610
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