by Zoë Heller
Published by Harper
352 pages, 2009
Steeped in Belief
Reviewed by Diane Leach
Heller’s fine novel takes on the Litvinoff family, a tribe of New Yorkers utterly certain in their beliefs until, abruptly, they aren’t.
Patriarch Joel is a famous radical lawyer known for defending controversial individuals, most recently an American Muslim suspected of Al Qaeda ties. Joel, an ardent socialist and judgmental moralist, glories in his outsider status, gleefully scanning the morning papers for disparaging publicity.
Joel’s English-born wife, Audrey, fled her humdrum life as a typist to marry this American hotshot. Shy, overwhelmed by America, she constructed a protective carapace, a sharp-tongued, fiercely leftist character that has hardened into a vicious woman.
Audrey personifies Heller’s greatest gift as a writer: the ability to create complex, murderous females. In Heller’s 2003 What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, we had Barbara, a needy, vituperative woman whose insidious behavior helped destroy Bathsheba’s life. Audrey Litvinoff makes Barbara look like an amateur. Audrey is cruelly critical of daughters Karla and Rosa and breathtakingly rude to nearly everyone else. The only people she loves are Joel and their adopted son, Lenny. Lenny, for his part, is a drug-addled mess, incapable of cleaning up -- or, with Audrey’s misguided assistance -- growing up.
The Believers opens with Joel suffering a deadly stroke that leaves him comatose. The story is handed to the women, shifting among Karla, Rosa and Audrey.
Karla, the eldest, is a hospital social worker. Overweight and homely, she suffers passively from her mother’s jibes, endlessly attempting to placate her.
Karla’s home life is little better. Husband Mike, a union organizer, has decided to support the Republican candidate for governor. He expects the quietly horrified Karla to accept this. Worse, Karla is infertile. Mike, the product of a large Irish-Catholic family, longs for children, and subjects Karla to a regime of grimly planned sex. When that fails, the couple begin adoption proceedings, but Karla is no Angelina Jolie: faced with the saccharine adoption counselors, the mandatory “Why I want to Adopt,” essay, and Mike’s mounting anger, she freezes.
Rosa’s life is also in disarray. After four years of living in Cuba, she has returned to New York City, bereft of her Marxist worldview. Ideologically adrift, still wishing to effect social change, she has taken a job working with girls in a Harlem after-school program. She has also begun attending Ahavat Israel Shul, an Orthodox synagogue. It is here that we see Audrey, herself a secular Jew, at her roaring worst.
“What is this thing you have to go to?”
“I’m going to Monsey for the weekend.”
“Is this something Jewy?”
“Actually, I’m attending a Shabbaton.”
“And what the fuck is that when it’s had its hair washed?”
The Shabbaton, it turns out, is a long Sabbath weekend at the home of Rabbi Reinman Modeled (I suspect) after the upstate Orthodox enclave Kiryas Joel, Heller’s Monsey is simultaneously amusing and terrifying. The members of Reinman’s household are defensive, hostile and smug, treating Rosa like a wayward child, shrieking in anger when she forgets to leave the bathroom light on. Now the family will have to use the bathroom in the dark all weekend! Even Rabbi Reinman’s gentle questioning bears a sharp edge: bringing Joel Litvinoff’s daughter into the Orthodox fold would be a delicious coup. And though her modern sensibilities chafe against the strictures of orthodoxy, Rosa pursues it, attending classes about Torah and joining another young woman on a tour of the mikvah, or ritual bath.
Joel, meanwhile, is steadily failing. Audrey spends most of her time bedside, emerging periodically to scream at the neurologist, contend with Berenice Mason, a visitor with some unpleasant news, or, on one memorable evening, attend her 59 birthday party.
The house, always a mess, has deteriorated into squalor. Audrey is sleepless and underweight. Lenny is using. He arrives high, druggie girlfriend Tanya in tow. Audrey immediately begins attacking Mike for endorsing the Republican candidate, then sinks her teeth into Rosa.
The party decompensates rapidly from here, rescued, if such a term can be used, by Lenny’s overdosing in the bathroom. He is slapped back to consciousness by Mike, then coddled by Audrey, who offers him hot tea with sugar.
Zeller manages to shoehorn a great deal into the novel to excellent effect. Politics, from sixties radicalism to 9/11, are inescapable. New York City is a capacious backdrop, home to Lenny’s dealer buddies, Rosa’s Orthodox acquaintances, and Karla’s new friend, the Egyptian Khaled, a newsstand owner. The Litvinoffs thrash in their milieu, some gaining ground, others moving backward. Each, to varying degrees, is guilty of ideological hypocrisy; Heller offers them no mercy. Ultimately -- surprisingly -- she allows the meek to inherit the earth. Given the stridency the more ardent characters, the decision is a welcome one. | April 2009
Diane Leach lives in northern California with her husband and cat. When not reading or writing, she regularly burns herself in the kitchen.