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Customer Review

32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars American family saga for the post modern world, 13 Jun. 2009
This review is from: The Believers (Paperback)
`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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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 26 Jun 2009, 16:56:50 BST
Antenna says:
This review chimes with my impressions e.g. as regards the great promise of the beginning.
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