Customer Review

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not an easy book to love, but still brilliant, 21 May 2013
This review is from: The Believers (Paperback)
"The Believers", Zoe Heller's third novel, starts with the patriarch of the Litvinoff family, Joel, a successful American lefty solicitor, who has a stroke in court and goes into a coma. His wife Audrey is more or less the main character, an Englishwoman who moved to New York with Joel back in the 60s and has stayed ever since. Their children, Rosa, a strongly political woman recently converted to orthodox Judaism, Karla, a timid, overweight woman stuck in an unhappy marriage with a union organiser who wants kids which Karla can't provide for him, and Lenny, an adopted son and a junkie. When Joel goes into a coma, Berenice Mason, his mistress, comes out of the woodwork to announce that she and Joel have a lovechild together, much to the dismay of Joel's family and to the unbridled fury of Audrey. That said, Berenice plays a very minor role in the novel - the book is mostly about the Litvinoff family dynamics.

There really isn't a plot to speak of, this is a completely character driven novel. Instead we get to know the characters and their lives - Rosa's search for her identity by exploring Judaism, Karla's sudden true love manifesting when she least expects, and Audrey, stood above them all, tapping her foot impatiently, scowling, taking a drag on a spliff and commenting acidly on them all as the brilliantly realised matriarch of the brood.

The characters may be hard to like but their interactions are priceless and Audrey's dialogue in particular is wonderfully withering - every time she appeared, I knew we'd get a great scene, usually between her and her worn out daughters, Karla and Rosa. While they may be a politically motivated family, we slowly see the contradictions in their behaviour and their true natures manifest themselves in small moments.

The book just sort of ends anticlimactically. Because there's no plot, there's no massive finale, and, with maybe one exception, none of the characters have an arc to speak of. And yet it's totally satisfying - at least to me. Maybe it's the way I read this book, taking my time with it, reading a few pages each day, spending weeks making my way through it instead of barrelling through in a day or two like I usually do. If I had bolted the book, I'm sure my opinion would be different. As it is, I really liked it.

The ability to stop and start and the lack of a plot is something I'm sure other readers who might not take the same slow approach I did, might pick out as qualities to dislike. It is a brave approach by Heller to present absolutely no urgency in this book. You can easily put it down at any moment because there really isn't any hurry to keep reading to the end of the chapter - the characters aren't really going anywhere, there's no overbearing storyline forcing the characters into action, the pages tick by at a gentle pace. It's not at all like Heller's previous books, especially the brilliant "Notes on a Scandal" which became more and more tense as the novel wore on. "The Believers" is instead almost stubborn in its way of refusing to pander to the reader's sensibilities of narrative fiction.

So make no mistake - this is not a book that will keep you in suspense, or keep you up late into the night because you just can't wait to see what happens next. No, it's a slow, measured read that rewards those who enjoy carefully and expertly written prose with fully realised characters. "The Believers" showcases a writer at the top of her game and it's a remarkable masterclass in writing. It may be easy to put down but it's just as easy to pick back up.
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