The Believers (novel)

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The Believers
The cover of the first edition
Author Zoë Heller
Cover artist gray318
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin Books
Publication date
September 2008
Media type Print (Hardback)
Pages 306 pp.
ISBN 978-0-670-91612-2 (hardback), ISBN 978-0-670-91613-9 (trade paperback)
OCLC 230916788

The Believers is a novel by Zoë Heller first published in 2008. It depicts a left-wing New York family of grown-ups who have little in common. The patriarch suffers an unexpected stroke and falls into a coma, after which each family member tries to continue his own unconventional course in life while at the same time trying to accommodate various revelations about the dying man and assisting and supporting the other family members in their lives.

The motto of the book—"The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned"—is a quotation from Antonio Gramsci. It has been noted that The Believers, Heller's third novel, bears no resemblance to her previous book, the successful Notes on a Scandal (2003).[1]

Plot summary[edit]

In 1962, at a party in London, 18-year-old Audrey Howard meets Joel Litvinoff, a prominent leftist lawyer involved with the civil rights movement who is on a short visit from the United States. Although Litvinoff is a complete stranger and fourteen years her senior, the two feel a mutual attraction, and when Litvinoff, after they have had sex, half-seriously suggests that Audrey follow him to the United States and become his wife, she takes him up on his offer without hesitation as she feels her chance has come to break away from her unexciting life as a typist in suburban London.

Both Joel and Audrey are Jewish but were raised in non-observant families. When they start their own family in Greenwich Village, they pride themselves on being atheists and thus having to fear nothing from death or life thereafter. Audrey bears two girls, Karla and Rosa, and the couple also adopt Lenny,[2] whose mother, a left-wing radical, is serving a long-term prison sentence. Underneath the liberal veneer, however, the Litvinoffs display many of the characteristics of a traditional family: Audrey dedicates her existence to supporting her husband's legal career, turns a blind eye to his many extra-marital affairs, and does not oppose the patriarchal attitudes and behaviour that he exhibits at home. For four decades, their family life develops according to their chosen socialist agenda, which has its foundation in the ambition to fight injustice, help the weak, and, generally, make the world a better place to live.

In 2002, at age 72, Joel is still active as a successful and charismatic defense lawyer, in his current case representing, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, an Arab American man accused of being a terrorist. Rosa, a rather attractive young woman, is a disillusioned revolutionary whose four-year stay in Castro's Cuba has alienated her from her socialist principles and has recently made her turn to Orthodox Judaism for an answer to the fundamental questions of life. She now works with disadvantaged children, although she thoroughly hates this job. Single, she shares a small flat with another young woman who has a more glamorous job and a more carefree outlook on life. Her sister Karla, who has had to fight obesity since childhood, is a social worker at a hospital—when she was young she was not encouraged by her parents to be a lawyer like her father—whose marriage to Mike, a labor union activist, has turned sour and remained childless in spite of her ongoing efforts to become pregnant. Joel and Audrey's adopted son Lenny has a history of drug abuse and a girlfriend called Tanya but no other assets to speak of; the family suspect that he might be using drugs again.

During a court session, Joel has a stroke from which he will never recover. Unconscious at first, he is hospitalised and falls into a coma. All the family members gather around the patient but there is nothing they can do to improve his condition. After several months have passed, Audrey is approached by the doctors who inform her that now would be the appropriate time to turn off all life-sustaining equipment. Audrey is furious and does not give her consent although at the same time she realizes her hypocrisy: terminating his life would be in accordance with a mutual agreement they made long before his stroke. Eventually, a few weeks after her refusal, Joel contracts an infection and dies.

Shortly after Joel's hospitalisation, Audrey meets Berenice Mason, a young, unattractive African American freelance photographer and visual artist who claims that Joel is the father of her four-year-old son Jamil. Audrey is incredulous at first but after seeing written proof realizes the woman is telling the truth. For Audrey, this revelation is more distressing than her husband's illness as it occurs to her how little their relationship has been based on mutual trust and honesty:

[...] Reality, she had suddenly understood, was not a series of discrete tableaux staged solely for her benefit, but vast and chaotic and unmasterable. Even people she saw every day—even her family—contained worlds that she would never fully fathom. [...] For forty years now, she had been confusing proximity with intimacy—believing that she had plumbed her husband's mysteries—when all the while she had been making love to his shadow. [...]

— [3]

While their father is dying the Litvinoff children try to pursue their own happiness. When Lenny collapses during a family gathering and admits to taking drugs again, he is sent to the country for the summer, far away from the lure of substance abuse, to stay with a friend of Audrey. Meanwhile, Rosa tries to satisfy her newfound curiosity about Orthodox Judaism by spending a weekend with a rabbi's family in Monsey. Uncertain about her future, at around the same time she also has a date with a former colleague from university. Although it is soon obvious to her that the man has become a self-obsessed bore, she has sex with him, only never to see him again. At the close of the novel, after her father's death, Rosa is preparing her departure for Jerusalem, to study the Torah at a yeshiva.

Unbeknownst to her husband Mike, Karla's dead-end marriage will not last much longer. While outwardly complying with her spouse's wish to adopt a child, Karla starts an on-and-off affair with the overweight Arab American owner of the newspaper shop at the hospital where she works. At the end of the novel she prematurely leaves the post-memorial reception held in honour of her father to meet her lover and possibly to remain with him.


The Believers was published to almost unanimously positive reviews. It has been called a "cruelly clever new novel",[4] "an observant and unsentimental family drama that pits rationalism against faith",[5] "at heart an American novel: a larger, more considered, layered and utterly assured study of a family driven by political passion whose personal lives refuse to comply with prescribed ideology",[6] and simply "a brilliant, brilliant book".[7] Critics agree that it defies comparison with Notes on a Scandal and that it is rich in character development.[8]

Reviewers and critics have suggested that Heller has a "penchant for unlikeable characters"[9] which may be seen as interesting or annoying.[10] Heller has retorted by stating that

it begins to seem like it's an issue with the books I write. [...] Quite often people say, "Ooh, what a monstrous character", and "Who is there to like in this book?" And I suppose my answer is twofold: one is that I don't think Audrey is monstrous through and through—I think she's funny, or certainly meant to be funny. And then there are all sorts of extenuating factors. I read a review the other day that said, "Joel is the one charming character in the book, and we're left with this pain in the neck." And in one sense that exactly expresses what she's had to deal with all her life, being the less desirable companion to this charming, charismatic, fabulous man, who is also this gigantic egotist. It's quite hard work living with that kind of star. [...] It's amazing how often, both giving readings in book shops or reading reviews on Amazon, or even reading supposedly sophisticated criticism, that charge arises: "You've written somebody that I don't like." And you want to say, well, how do you feel about Iago? I take umbrage at all that. [...] I very strongly feel that the job of fiction is not to write admirable figures, but to imagine one's way into all sorts of people, often people who ostensibly at least are deeply unlikeable or unpleasant. The question is not whether you like them but whether you understand them.

— [11]

Lionel Shriver notes that the character of Joel Litvinoff may be modelled on William Kunstler.[12]


  1. ^ See Sam Peczek: "Social Graces Gone Askew", (16 October 2008): "Ah, the age-old quandary of how to follow one's last novel—when that one was so popular that it was swiftly translated into 23 or so languages and adapted into a film. Heller employs two tactics here: the first is to wait a really long time (five years), perhaps in hope of creating some distance and such. And the second tactic: whatever made your last book famous, don't do it with the new one."
  2. ^ Whitney, Em (2009-03-06). A Family Romance (HTML). The New York Observer. The New York Observer, LLC. Retrieved on 2009-03-12
  3. ^ The Believers, pp.144f.
  4. ^ Madeleine Kingsley: "Review: The Believers", The Jewish Chronicle (10 October 2008)
  5. ^ Holly Kyte: "Review: The Believers by Zoë Heller", The Daily Telegraph (26 September 2008)
  6. ^ Joanna Briscoe: "Keep the Faith", The Guardian (September 20, 2008)
  7. ^ Liz Jones: "A Sharp and Vicious Portrait of a Family", Daily Mail (24 October 2008)
  8. ^ The Tennessean, Arts & Entertainment, 8 March 2009, "Novelist tackles family dynamics", p. 11: The beauty of this book is in the details.
  9. ^ Holly Kyte: "Review: The Believers by Zoë Heller"
  10. ^ Anita Brookner says "to begin with, it [the book] is completely Americanised, not only in its setting but in its locution, so that the reader must constantly adjust to different idioms, different references. This [...] is no mean feat, but somewhat alienating, as are the characters, who are universally charmless." See Anita Brookner: "The Believers: A Crisis of Confidence", The Spectator (17 September 2008)
  11. ^ Zoë Heller, quoted in Lisa Mullen: " Zoë Heller on The Believers", Time Out (1 October 2008)
  12. ^ Lionel Shriver: "Review: The Believers by Zoe Heller", The Daily Telegraph (26 September 2008)

External links[edit]