Within the rigorous, infuriating confines of our families, we’re all caught—often forever—in roles we would love to shed. We’re the rebel or the smart one, the crybaby, the peacemaker, the black sheep, the mama’s boy. Breaking free of such molds requires the rare combination of time passing at just the right speed, changing circumstances, more courage than we can generally muster after a hard day’s work—and just plain luck.
British novelist Zoe Heller understands this universal conundrum, and in The Believers she puts her perverse wit to work examining it. The result is a sharply satiric exploration of what happens to the Litvinoff clan when vibrant patriarch Joel—a wealthy, radical lawyer whose cheery lefty idealism doesn’t prevent him from cherishing a rather inflated view of himself—suddenly has a stroke and ends up in a coma.
Tackling the inner workings of often-prickly New Yorkers may seem like straying a bit for Heller, author of What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, a wickedly funny psychological thriller unreliably narrated by a teacher obsessed with a younger colleague. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and adapted into a sly, biting film with Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, What Was She Thinking? is a darkly amusing character study.
The Believers takes a sardonic view, too, but it’s more grounded in reality and even veers toward touching as its characters, whose lives have revolved so firmly around a larger-than-life father, find their old convictions wavering in light of surprising secrets.
At first, the Litvinoffs’ roles are deeply ingrained trenches from which there seems no escape. Audrey, Joel’s antagonistic wife, is a hardcore stoic, chastising one of her daughters for weeping at Joel’s hospital bed: “Don’t start blubbing, Karla, please.” She always takes the hard line and remains unreasonable and unwavering in her devotion to adopted son Lenny, a spoiled, wastrel drug addict who shows few signs of improvement or promise.
A social worker married to a union activist, Karla is viewed as a born nurturer, but, in truth, she wishes she’d followed her father’s footsteps into law. She “had spent many happy hours in her bedroom renacting important, historical trials with her Barbies and her gerbil ... Picking up on certain familial hints—the mood of rueful skepticism that arose whenever she spoke of law school, her mother’s breezy speculations as to whether she might not be ‘a bit dyslexic’—she came to understand that she had horribly overestimated her potential.” Trying dutifully to do what’s expected, she’s trapped in the harrowing cycle of attempting to outwit infertility but not entirely sure she wants to be a mother.
Her sister Rosa has always been the lively radical, teaching in Cuba in service to the Revolution, but recently even Rosa has abandoned her romance with socialism and horrified her parents by exhibiting an interest in Orthodox Judaism. “Joel and Audrey had a keen contempt for all religions, but Judaism, being the only variety of theistic mumbo-jumbo in which they were themselves ancestrally implicated, had always inspired their most vehement scorn.” Joel even used to return bar mitzvah invitations with “THERE IS NO GOD scrawled rudely across their engraved lettering.” But even though she despises her parents’ intolerance, Rosa can’t be sure what, if anything, the recent religious awakening means to her.
The sanctimonious attitudes of true believers are a rich target, and Heller is merciless in dissecting hypocrisy and the ways in which rampaging egos gleefully trump idealism. One high-minded antiwar meeting digresses to the point where members argue over whether to have Susan Sarandon speak at an upcoming protest. “Everybody always wants to have Susan Sarandon at these things because she’s good looking, but how well informed is she, really?” Another woman cries, “What about Tim Robbins?”
And even as Rosa tries to bend herself to the will of a demanding God, she can’t shake the idea of how outsiders see her: Dressed for an Orthodox field trip, she “looked like nothing so much as a mad Victorian governess trying to hide a skin disease.”
But Heller is not completely ambivalent about her characters’ fates; she generously allows them room to change. Even stubborn Audrey, faced with a reality she can’t bulldoze her way out of, recognizes her limits: “How had she ended up like this, imprisoned in the role of harridan? ... Somewhere along the line, 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.”
We may feel we’re trapped, Heller argues, but we’re not. Life always offers a bit of room to maneuver, if only we’re willing to surrender.