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on 11 September 2017
Zoe Heller' s novel about an American, Jewish socialist family is in the acerbic style of Lionel Shriver. I really enjoyed this book.
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on 9 April 2017
I enjoyed this rather unusual black humour story of a dysfunctional family in their time of sadness. I knew nothing of the author or what the book was about. I was handed this book by my daughter who got it from her friend and they were clearing out their books. My husband has instructed me to read all the hardback books first as they upset the look of the bookshelf!


Audrey and Joel marry in kind of a whirl wind rush and commit their lives to protests and fighting the injustices of the world. Joel is a lawyer and Audrey supports all his causes.
One day Joel has a stroke and ends up ina coma and the family are left rethinking their lives and what it all means.

Audrey discovers Joel had a secret life and she is forced to re-examine her ideas about their forty-year marriage. This forces her into a kind of angry depression.

Their children all have their own issues that they are living through and then their father's coma also forces them to think about their lives as well as their relationship with their rather unpleasant and angry mother.

Rosa has found some solace in hunting for her Jewish roots and finding out about Judaism. She is mocked by her mother but pressured by her Jewish friends to be more committed.

Karla found her comfort in food and is rather overweight. She is married but they cannot have children and her husband Mike wants them. They are going along the adoption route and Karla is not quite so sure. She also becomes involved with the owner of a newspaper concession at her work.

Lenny the adopted son who Audrey feels closest too and Joel didn't get along with is back on drugs and enabled by Audrey handing him money as she feels that is showing her caring for him

Jean, Audrey' long suffering a very supportive friend is constantly there for her despite Audrey's anger and rudeness.

Hannah, Joel's mother feels resentful and upset that her son should be dying while she is still around.

Such is the story, not a lot happens and we are really just joining a rather odd family in their time of crisis as they look back over their lives and question their relationships.


I found the characters a little too extreme but that is part of the humour I think. The Litvinoff tribe or family set their stall out as being hard line socialists who have proudly and loudly rejected their Jewish heritage. They are anti establishment ans unorthodox in every way.

I found it very hard to warm to Audrey who was not a great mother and an angry bed tempered person, lazy, slovenly and not really appealing at all. I did wonder why her friend, Jean was so good to her and why her daughters still came round and also tried to support her as she was like a prickly bad tempered cactus.

I enjoyed Rosa's journey and found the Jewish aspects and finding out about orthodox Judaism very interesting.

I felt very sorry for both girls and especially Karla who seemed to be trying to appease everyone and pleasing no one.

I did enjoy the humour, a kind of MASH black humour as the situation was far from funny yet the way Heller writes brought a smile t my face many times.

I particularly liked the story when Hannah was struggling with her fancy massage and adjustable chair. She couldn't work the chair using the control yet would not allow any of her granddaughters to help. She almost ended up being ejected after her efforts.

Having read this I would be happy to read Heller's other books as I did enjoy her writing style, her humour appealed to me too.

I found it a very different book, a strange story but somehow compelling and I certainly didn't find it hard going.
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Yes, it is beautifully written but in the end how much pleasure is to be had from reading about such truly unlikeable, angry and hopeless people? Being set in another culture makes it less likely to grab her previous readers. The main plot device is not really a 'devastating' discovery, rather run of the mill and sad. Well researched and educational in religious attitudes but not really a book I would pass on.
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`At a party in a bedsit just off Gower Street a young woman stood alone at a 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 Believers opens with a prologue set in London in 1962 - just a year before sexual intercourse started according to Larkin - and sex happens on a first date within the first fifteen pages of the wonderfully written prologue which juxtaposes the sad provincialism of Audrey's parents with the possibilities of moving to New York with American Joel Litvinoff. With Joel she imagines being a comrade 'against injustice' and `sharing the passion and action of their time.'

The prologue is a fantastic opener; the writing is funny and sharp and there is a real sense of excitement and possibility. Heller's wit and clear eyed observation is evident in the opening pages - another woman joins her at the window as she is watching Joel and starts to speak to her about him. `Audrey nodded warily. She had never cared for conspiratorial female conversations of this sort. Its assumption of shared preoccupations was usually unfounded in her experience, its intimacies almost always the trapdoor to some subterranean hostility.' Audrey moves away when the women points out that Litvinoff is a Jew. `There was a time when she would have lingered to hear what amusing or sinister characteristic the woman attributed to the man's Jewishness........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 part game. Embarrassing the prejudices of your country men was never quite as gratifying as you thought it would be; the countrymen somehow never embarrassed enough.'

The rest of the novel takes place forty years later in a post 9/11 Manhattan and start very promisingly. Joel is still fighting the good fight, still married to Audrey, and some tension is introduced with some other family members. And then at the end of the first chapter Joel is struck down and spends the rest of the novel in a coma as his dysfunctional family circles around him.

Heller quotes Gramsci at the start of the novel `The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned' and it's true that each of her characters explores their illusion and their belief systems in the course of the novel. For Audrey it's about being on the radical left as a comrade of Joel, for her adopted son Lenny it's about drugs - their daughter Rosa has abandoned Cuba and is exploring Orthodox Judaism whilst the good but ugly daughter Karla stops being a good wife. They are not very sympathetic characters but then neither was Barbara in Notes on a Scandal and yet that was mesmerising if less well written. So, it's good subject matter and very well written but somehow, for me, it never delivered on the promise of that prologue and opening chapter - perhaps because Audrey was unrecognisable as the young girl in the window
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VINE VOICEon 18 February 2010
`The Believers' is the portrait of a family who seem unable to communicate with each other and how they each cope following the death of the Father. Audrey, the Mother, is largely unsympathetic but is faced with having to re-evaluate her forty-year marriage following a revelation after the death. Karla, one of the daughters, is trying for a baby, battling with her weight and poor self-image and is struggling with her feelings regarding an unlikely suitor. Rosa, another daughter, is trying to come to terms with her feelings about religion and adopted son, Lenny, is back on drugs again.
Each family member is facing changes in their life and each must ask themselves what they believe in.

I greatly enjoyed Heller's earlier novel `Notes on a Scandal' and this novel didn't disappoint. Heller doesn't attempt to make characters palatable which is a brave move that seems to pay off in both this and her earlier book. Although the `revelation' wasn't much of a revelation for me it did give a focus to the book which was of benefit.

This might be a book which is better suited to those who like character driven novels rather than plot-driven and I found it very enjoyable. I'm looking forward to her next book!
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on 23 December 2014
A splendidly readable novel, the ideas that grip people and the lives that they lead are represented in this tale of one family. The characterisation is good, the scenes excellent; Audrey's birthday in particular is gripping and funny.

I note some of the more critical reviewers are bothered because they don't like the characters. I don't 'like' Lady Macbeth, or Mr Tulkinghorn, or Raskolnikov, or the Pardoner or Leskov's villagers; perhaps Macbeth, Bleak House, Crime and Punishment, the Canterbury Tales and The Village should all get one star.
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on 25 October 2011
At the heart of this novel is a family tragedy and the story expands to look into the lives of the various family members. The Litvinoffs are a Jewish family living in America and affected in various ways by many of the "issues of the day" - religious conflicts and personal faith questions, addictions, fertility, infidelity... the list goes on. The key problem is the extreme nature of the characters making them, on the whole, extremely objectionable and lacking any real sense of humanity - they just don't seem to ring true. In another of Heller's novels, "Notes on a Scandal", it is true that the characters are flawed but on a deeper reading, there is a great deal more depth to them and the possibility to engage with them at a far more satisfying level than with any of those in "The Believers".

I also felt that the ending was a bit too "neat and cosy" - having spent the entire novel almost wilfully avoiding niceties and any real softness, the ending is a complete contrast to this and I don't really feel it worked.

Having said all of this, Heller is undoubtedly a talented writer - the novel is pacey and taut with a good deal of crisp descriptive phrasing. For this reason, I enjoyed it in spite of its far-fetched nature, but just felt it wasn't up to the standard of the excellent "Notes on a Scandal" that I was benchmarking it against.
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on 23 September 2008
This is an book, which I really wanted to like and did - but only to a point. it's the story of a New York secular Jewish left wing intellectual family which, in itself, seemed a bit derivative, and how their various belief systems fall apart and are restructured after the patriarch falls ill. To me the problem with the book was it was mainly head with little heart. We had scenes in an orthodox Jewish community, scenes in a prison, scenes with an over-privileged girl from Florida, scenes with under-privileged black girls from Harlem with names like Chianti, liberal left wingers. It was all very well drawn and observed but ultimately you felt lists were being ticked off in an effort to provide a state of the nation work. The main characters move among these scenes like pawns. They were recognisable types but it was hard to sympathise with any of them. The final couple of scenes felt like a rapid wrapping up and at this point my credulity was tested. Heller is such a good writer, fluent and funny, but I think she is trying too hard to escape her history as a columinist detailing her own life and in the process emotion gets lost. I wish she'd not fight shy of it, her columns were genius in my opinion and had the personal touch this novel sadly lacks. I'm looking forward to her getting it right next time. I'm sure she can.
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on 30 August 2011
It's a well worn saying that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but it really applies in this book. The central character is so unlikeable in every way, and one of her daughters is only marginally better, that by about half way through I gave up being interested in what was going to happen to them. If this were Joanna Trollope, who does this kind of domestic issues drama far more effectively, you would let the "bad" character have at least one redeeming feature, or you would make the reader understand better why they were like that. This, in contrast, is too two-dimensional. The central character, while living in New York, is also technically a Brit, although little is made of this. You could take the first chapter out of the book and it wouldn't make any difference.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 13 August 2009
This is the story of a family in New York with two daughters and an adopted son, and what is happening in their lives around the time the father has a sudden stroke. One suffers drug addiction, for one of them there is re-discovery of the importance of the Jewish religion; and for one daughter an affair which may or may not lead to a happier life. Initially I found the book a little hard edged; but I warmed to the characters and towards the end was finding it hard to put down. Occasionally it's really funny too, like the scene where the grandmother insists on working her electronic chair alone: "a substantial portion of her waking hours was spent riding helplessly back and forth in its rigid velveteen clutches." There might be a little too much politics and details of the way of Judaism for some; though personally I found the latter extremely interesting.
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