Monday, January 18, 2010

The Believers by Zoe Heller: A Review and a Giveaway

The Believers by Zoe Heller
352 pages
Published March 2009 by Harper Collins
Source: TLC Book Tours and Harper Collins

Joel and Audrey Litvinoff first met in London in 1962 when he was already a respected radical lawyer and she was a young girl just beginning to form her own ideas. One night they met and the next day she asked him to take her back with him to the U.S.

Forty years later, the Litvinoffs are icons of the left wing, both revered and reviled. They've raised two daughters and an adopted son as atheist, protest marching, liberals. Daughter Rosa has given up her revolutionary ways and is pondering a life of Orthodox Judaism. Daughter Karla, a social worker, is married to a union leader whose union has just joined forces with **gasp** a Republican. And son Lenny seems to be a hopeless drug addict.

When Joel suffers a massive stroke and slips into a coma, a secret is revealed that will make Audrey question everything she has always believed about Joel and her marriage. Audrey is no saint to begin with and the whole situation makes her even harder to be around. As she continues to act as an enabler for Lenny, she gets even nastier about Rosa's exploration of religion and Karla's weight. As the entire family deals with Joel's condition, they fight amongst themselves and with almost everyone else they come across. And each of them is forced to make some decisions about what it is they truly believe in. Rosa's exploration of Judaism makes sense to her emotionally but not intellectually. Karla believes her marriage is the best she can do for herself but she can't make herself do the work needed to begin the adoption process her bully husband is so gungho about. When an opportunity to find love presents itself, she has to take a long look at herself. Even Lenny makes an attempt to find a clean life for himself.

Can I just say, right up front, that Heller knows more big words than Merriam or Webster. Heller also does a marvelous job painting a picture--when Karla walks into her parents' home to find out that the maid hasn't been in a more than a week and Audrey hasn't even bothered to remove a pan of chicken soup that's been on the stove for nearly that long, I almost gagged. Heller does keep the story moving along, only occasionally getting bogged down, mostly when writing from Rosa's point of view. She's also skillfully combines humor and sadness. What I had a hard time with was connecting with the characters.

As one reviewer said, if you have to like the characters in a book to like the book, this is not a book you'll enjoy. None of the characters Heller has created are particularly likable. Which isn't especially important to me--I grew quite fond of Olive Kitteridge it must be said. So I was willing to go along for the ride except that, at some point, you also have to care what happens to the people in the book even if what you are hoping for is disaster. At one point, it seemed that Audrey had a major revelation about her own character and it seemed that things may take a turn for the better.

"How had she ended up like this, imprisoned in the role of harridan? Once upon a time, her brash manner had been a mere posture - a convenient and amusing way for an insecure teenage bride, newly arrived in America, to disguise her crippling shyness...But somewhere along the way, when she hadn't been paying attention, her temper had ceased to be a beguiling party act that could be switched on and off at will."

But she only seems to grow angrier. When Lenny has become sober and is contemplating a life without her, Audrey rips his choices to shreds.

Karla turned out to be my favorite character, mostly because I felt like she was the character that learned the most about herself and really moved forward.

"Depression, in Karla's experience, was a dull, inert thing - a toad that squatted wetly on your head until it finally gathered the energy to slither off. The unhappiness that she had been living with for the last ten days was quite a different creature. It was frantic and aggressive. It had fists and fangs and hobnailed boots. It didn't sit, it assailed. It hurt her. In the mornings, it slapped her so hard in the face that she reeled as she walked to the bathroom."

Writing like that's what pulled me through the novel, regardless of how I felt about the characters.

For more opinions of "The Believers," the tour dates for this book are:
Tuesday, January 26, 2010: Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, January 27, 2010: Steph and Tony Investigate!
Thursday, January 28, 2010: Life in the Thumb
Tuesday, February 2, 2010: Write for a Reader
Tuesday, February 9, 2010: Rhapsody in Books
Wednesday, February 10, 2010: A Reader’s Respite
Thursday, February 11, 2010: The Brain Lair
Monday, February 15, 2010: Book Club Classics!
Tuesday, February 16, 2010: lit*chick
Wednesday, February 17, 2010: Sasha and the Silverfish
Thursday, February 18, 2010: Nonsuch Book
Now for that giveaway! I have one hardcover copy of "The Believers" to giveaway. Just leave a comment telling me your favorite unlikable character. Leave a separate comment with your email, which I will not publish, so that I will know how to get a hold of you if you win. If you're a follower, please leave that in the comment as well. Drawing will be held January 28th.


  1. This was one of my favorite books read in 2009. Wickedly funny.

  2. My favorite unlikeable character is a hard one, as I've met quite a few recently...

    But, I would have to say that my favorite unlikeable is Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom from John Updike's Rabbit novels. He's got some qualities that I like, but I'm not a fan of him, for the most part!

    Thanks for hosting this giveaway. Sounds like a great book!

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. My favorite unlikeable character is the behemoth, Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces. He is an absolute nightmare of a son, citizen, friend, man, human, etc. His idea(l)s are completely irrational as are his actions, which always seem to lead him into situations that are completely of a riotous nature. But there is just something about his story that I just cannot get enough of and I absolutely love reading all about Ignatius living at home with his mom, peddling hot dogs and navigating the streets of New Orleans. By the by, I would love it if you would throw my name into the hat for the giveaway. Cheers!!

  5. Don't enter me as I'm reading this one right now...I really enjoyed your thoughts on this one!!

  6. Don't enter me in the giveaway, but I find it very interesting that Heller wrote a book with all unlikable characters. Interesting how that plays out with readers. Thanks for being on this tour! Great review! :)

  7. Hmmm... this is a hard question! I suppose it would be Scarlett O'Hara. She's got some major flaws, especially in the book (as compared to the movie version of her that most people think of).

  8. I loved this book too - Heller is amazing adept at moving her plot along with these despicably unlikable characters. This is intended as praise, but the novel seemed almost less a novel and more a collection of individual characters studies, which were added together, allowed to collide with one another, completing a whole family more dysfunctional than the sum of its parts.

    One of my favorite parts is when Heller gleefully makes fun of Lenny's girlfriend Tanya for being so delightfully ignorant of how ignorant and silly she sounds/is.

    To answer your question, I'd have to say my favorite unlikeable character is Switters, from Tom Robbins "Brief Invalids Home From Hot Climates." He's an absolute train wreck. (You can keep me out of the give-away - I have the book firmly tucked on my "good reads" shelf!)


  9. Great review Lisa! You don't have to enter me. I was stopping by to give you this award:

  10. I'm glad the writing pulled you through, but I don't think it's a book for me. Thanks for your review.

  11. My favorite unlikeable character in a recent read was Arnold Avery, a pedophile serial killer!!

    bostonredsoxfever AT gmail DoT com

    thanks Lisa

    (this book sounds good -- one i meant to borrow but never did)

  12. I think amazing writing makes any book bearable when characters are all louts! Thanks for the review; I think I'll pass on this one, though.

  13. Lisa, that was an excellent review! No need to enter me in the contest, as I am on the tour as well. I think you are right on target when you mention that all of these characters are unlikeable. I found the whole book to be like a train wreck. It was gruesome, but I just couldn't look away. I loved the book though, and think that Heller did a wonderful job with it. Glad to hear that you enjoyed it as well!

  14. Angle of Repose is one of my favorite books, but Susan Ward was a character I just couldn't stand.

    Thanks for the giveaway.

    s.mickelson at gmail dot com

  15. This is the first I have heard of this book, and you make it sounds so good!

    My favorite unlikeable character is Professor Snape from the Harry Potter books.

    akreese (at) hotmail (dot) com

    I'm following your blog.

  16. My favorite unlikable character would be Cathy from East of Eden. She's pure evil!

  17. scrooge!!! thanks for the giveaway minsthins at optonline dot net

  18. My favorite unlikeable character is Jay Gatsby. Thanks for the chance. utgal2004[at]yahoo[dot]com

  19. I think it would be Scarlett O'Hara. Even through all the stuff she pulls, there is something quite understandable.


  20. My current most unlikeable character is Asa Mercer in the book A Bride in the Bargain.

  21. I'm reading Margaret Atwood's "The Year of the Flood" and I'm not developing any affection for the character Ren/Brenda.