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The Believers: A Novel Paperback – January 19, 2010

3.7 out of 5 stars 82 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Heller (What Was She Thinking?; Notes on a Scandal) puts to pointed use her acute observations of human nature in her third novel, a satire of 1960s idealism soured in the early 21st century. Audrey and Joel Litvinoff have attempted to pass on to their children their lefty passions—despite Audrey's decidedly bourgeois attitude and attorney Joel's self-satisfied heroism, including the defense of a suspected terrorist in 2002 New York City. When Joel has a stroke and falls into a coma, Audrey grows increasingly nasty as his secrets surface. The children, meanwhile, wander off on their own adventures: Rosa's inherited principles are beleaguered by the unpleasant realities of her work with troubled adolescents; Karla, her self-image crushed by Audrey, has settled into an uncomfortable marriage and the accompanying pressure to have children; and adopted Lenny, the best metaphor for the family's troubles, dawdles along as a drug addict and master manipulator. Though some may be initially put off by the characters' coldness—the Litvinoffs are a severely screwed-up crew—readers with a certain mindset will have a blast watching things get worse. (Mar.)
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From The New Yorker

Set in New York City in 2002, with the terror of September 11th still fresh and the confrontation with Iraq starting to take shape, this searing comic novel takes on hypocrisy of all kinds. Joel Litvinoff, a noted radical lawyer, suffers a stroke while in court defending a Muslim man accused of terrorist activity. His hospital room becomes the center of an orbit of women: his wife, Audrey, who clings to the diminishing hope that he will emerge from his coma; his daughters, Rosa and Karla; and Berenice, a photographer with whom he secretly had a child. As with Heller’s previous novel, “What Was She Thinking?,” no one is entirely likable. Audrey is angry and cruel; Rosa priggish; Karla slovenly and timid; Berenice self-satisfied. Heller’s talent lies in the way she illuminates her characters, often with dazzling insight, without making excuses or offering redemption.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (March 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061430218
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061430213
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (82 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #626,827 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Mary Lins TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 16, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
No one creates the annoying protagonist as deliciously well as Zoe Heller. I adored "Notes on a Scandal" and "Everything You Know" so I pre-ordered her latest novel and she does not disappoint. In "The Believers" Ms. Heller provides one of the most annoyingly self-righteous, mean-spirited, morally void, intellectually pedantic, shrew in her main character, Audrey. Just when you think she couldn't get any worse, she does. This novel is a delight. How fun to watch Heller put a pin in the over-inflated buffoonery of ideologues.

Now, a lot of readers prefer their characters to be in black or white; saints or villains. Heller novels are not for these readers; if you must identify with and "root" for a character when you read a novel, skip this one.

But if you appreciate a juicy satire full of complex characters, intellectual contradictions and disturbing choices, you're sure to enjoy "The Believers" as much as I did.
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Format: Paperback
When ultra-liberal defense attorney Joel Litvinoff succumbs to a stroke, falling into a coma, his family is burdened with all the sorrows and anxieties that usually accompany such misfortunes. But the Litvinoff "tribe" is anything but typical. There's wife Audrey, the waspish, strident English ex-pat who viewed motherhood as a distraction, and first child Rosa, who is struggling rather blindly to live up to her parents' socialist principles. Karla is the second-born, beaten down to self-loathing by her upbringing, her husband, and her chronic weight problem. Finally, Lenny, adopted (read "rescued") at age 4, the only one who stimulates Audrey's maternal feelings, and the poster child for learned helplessness. The three Litvinoff siblings are in their 30's now.

The Believers is a character-driven satire of a novel, written with psychological insight and, at times, biting humor. Author Heller displays a fine mastery of dialog, wit, and irony. There is not a single extraneous word between these covers. The Litvinoffs, among themselves, have enough emotional problems to support an army of mental health workers. No one, no matter how loved, is spared the vitriol of Audrey's zingers, and gradually, the wellspring of her bitterness reveals itself. While it is often uncomfortable to read about their inner turmoil, injections of sanity are provided by supporting characters, most notably Audrey's friend Jean and mother-in-law Hannah, and Karla's friend Khaled. Heller makes the uneasiness well worthwhile with a brilliant, authentic ending. Perhaps she'll write more about these people; I certainly hope that's the case.
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Format: Hardcover
Zoe Heller is sui generis, a gutsy, peerless writer with master control of her narrative. This is a family saga that takes no prisoners. Her sardonic style is crisp, erudite. Her characters are not caricatures--as outrageous as they are, they feel true.

Audrey Litvinoff, the matriarch, is a flinty, pained woman with a major character disorder. While her husband lies in a coma, she is told some uncomfortable news about his dirty little secrets. With a kind of acerbic, acid aplomb, she spins into a denial that threatens to unravel her. As it is, she is wound so tight that I felt my own circulation threatening to block off. But she is so exuberant that I was often reeling in her energy. She is staggered by her own wretchedness and projects it onto those around her. She is especially harsh to her own daughters, but overprotects and enables her drug-addicted son.

Her daughters, Karla and Rosa, are choked by their mother's dominance and have no sense of their own identity. Karla lives in her husband's shadow and Rosa seeks a self through Orthodox Judaism. Audrey's son, Lenny, could be reductively defined as a spoiled, angry brat. He is certainly a lost soul--a weak, spineless, selfish son of his mother (although he was adopted).

Heller's prose is so muscular it punctures the air, it leaves streaks of blood on your fingers as you turn the pages. I had an out and out blast reading this novel. It is lofty, but wet and juicy and wholly entertaining. The pages flowed with as much alacrity as her narrative. It nearly singed my fingers.

This is my first Heller novel. Some reviewers complain that her characters are not likable. Well, paradoxically, I don't necessarily like a character that is likable. I like them vivid and buzzing and original. Audrey leaps out of the novel and claws your face--and I still had empathy for her. I was moved by her and the events of this story. This is one author that has made a believer out of me.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book is set in a variety of scenes in and around New York: socialist rallies, hospitals for the terminally ill, adoption agencies, upper-middle class homes in Greenwich Village, Jewish Orthodox synagogues, after school programs for poor black girls, courtrooms, etc. etc.

The author probably had to do so much research that she forgot to also create a plot. Nothing much happens in the book.

While most characters are believable (with the exception of the main character, the matron of a dysfunctional family who is so mean it's unclear why anyone still satellites around her), the story is slow and tedious.

On top of everything, the characters often speak like English people! They say thing like "don't let's" and "you mustn't" which aren't used in daily talk in America.

Heller's other book "Notes on a Scandal" set in her native London offers much subtler and more effective social commentary.
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