Review of “The Believers” by Zoe Heller

The Believers is a story about an extremely dysfunctional family, the Litvinoffs, made up of two emotionally abusive parents, Joel and Audrey, and three very maladjusted kids, Rosa, Karla, and Lenny. (Rosa and Karla are named for the leftist heroes Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Marx; Lenny was adopted.) The parents picture themselves as paragons of socialist ideology, which to them seems to include a willingness to take drugs in front of their children, deprecating the kids with gutter language, parading their self-hating anti-Semitism like a badge of honor, spewing contempt and anger as an expression of their cynicism, and eschewing compassion and kindness as a bourgeois weakness. In other words, they are absolutely abhorrent, repulsive people.

Upon reaching adulthood, the children are a mess, and as their memories of growing up are revealed, it is not difficult to see why. Rosa flits from one trendy ideological commitment to another, in search of an instant moral code that will enable her to live a life “consonant with her convictions” and have a higher power of some sort define who she should be. Karla is in a loveless marriage, the pain of which she dulls with food, and then hates herself (with help from her parents) for being fat. And Lenny is a mooching, worthless drug addict, whose attempts to get his life back on track are consistently undermined by Audrey, who fights not having [abusive] control over any of her children.

The story begins when Joel has a stroke, which thankfully reduces his conscious moments in the plot. The rest of the book reveals how the other Litvinoffs will handle the departure of their figurehead, and what, if anything, they will make of their lives.

A confrontation between Rosa and Audrey encapsulates the underlying theme of this story. Audrey is excoriating Rosa for her latest ideological foray into Orthodox Judaism. Rosa tries to argue to her mother that she feels the truth has been revealed to her:

“But Mom, if it’s the truth, it has to be right for me, doesn’t it? If you thought you’d found the truth about something, would you walk away from it just because it wasn’t the truth you particularly wanted or expected to find?

Audrey shrugged. ‘I can’t answer that. The truth would never reveal itself to me in that way.’

…Rosa turned back to Audrey impatiently. ‘But what if it did, Mom?’ she asked. ‘What if the truth did reveal itself to you in that way?’

…Audrey turned to her. ‘You want to know what I’d do if the truth revealed itself to me and it wasn’t the truth I wanted to find?’

‘Yes.’

Audrey smiled. ‘I’d reject it.’”

Discussion: This is a book about emotionally damaged people who are drawn to totalitarian systems of belief so that they are personally absolved of individual responsibility for their choices. They use the belief systems to justify their dysfunctional behaviors; when the quality of their lives suffer, rather than look to themselves, they find fault with their ideological crutches and go in search of others. The characters in this story never learn any lessons about themselves, in spite of well-meaning people who occasionally try to enlighten them. Rather, they are all drawn deeper into their pathologies, until, at the end, they are veritable parodies of people.

The difficulty I have is how to evaluate a book in which all the characters are detestable to some degree and none of them are able to change. This does not necessarily reflect a lack of writing skill on the part of the author; indeed, it may be a tribute to her talent. Still, it would be difficult for me to say to anyone “you will enjoy this book.”

As an introduction to an interview with Zoe Heller on NPR, Maureen Corrigan had this to say:

“By refusing to pander, to serve up even one likeable main character, The Believers… raises implicit questions about our readerly expectations about fiction. You may not make new imaginary friends by reading The Believers but, as consolation, this smart, caustic novel reminds readers that fictional friendship can be overrated.”

I guess I don’t agree with that.

Evaluation: Why would you want to spend time reading about this horrible family? Audrey has to be one of the most execrable characters in literature I have ever encountered. Joel isn’t far behind her. Lenny is detestable, Rosa is an annoying hypocrite, and Karla only looks good in comparison with the others. You keep reading because you fully expect the characters to have some sort of epiphanies but in fact, all but Karla just get worse. It may be good writing, but to me that did not mitigate the painful experience of being with these people! My recommendation? Run in the other direction.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by HarperCollins Publishers, 2008

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29 Responses to Review of “The Believers” by Zoe Heller

  1. caite says:

    I read this book last year…which seems like so long ago, so many reviews ago…and although I am know I am in a minority, I liked this book.
    Yes, they are deeply flawed people..but I did not find them totally detestable for some reason. Gosh, I have to go back and read my review to find out why, but I actually enjoyed this book. Wow..I gave it four stars on LT.
    I think it is not a pleasant book, but a powerful book, very well written.

  2. Suejustbooks says:

    This was one of those books that, as a bookseller, I have trouble selling because I am not sure how other readers will feel about it. However, I enjoyed the book so much because of its excellent writing, clever dialogue and strong character development (whether you like the characters or not!) So, I thought this was a great review since most people will feel like you do, even though I loved reading this book.

    • Suejustbooks,

      I thought the writing was good also, which is why I didn’t just stop reading it. But I wasn’t glad to have read it; I don’t think I gained anything by doing so.

  3. Julie P. says:

    Wow — I loved reading your review because I had no idea what this book was about — I just figured I’d want to read it. While it can be difficult to read an entire book about despicable people, it might still make a good discussion book. I’m just not sure that I’d want to spend that much time with them.

  4. diane says:

    I love books about dysfunctional people/families, but I think I’ll pass on this one. I like to be able to feel something for the characters when I read.

    Thanks for the honest review.

  5. Steph says:

    You know that while I thought the characters were grossly flawed that I didn’t dislike this book at all! I think for me I really felt that the reason these nasty vile people worked was because to me they came across as quite realistic… do horrible people always have earthshattering revelations that set them on a better path? Probably not. Some people are just jerks and always will be!

    I agree I wouldn’t want to spend an extended period of time with them in real life, but I thought they were sufficiently interesting to spend a few hours reading about. And I think the switching narrative helped, because it might have been too much to spend the entire book with Audrey!

    • Steph,

      It’s funny you should say it seemed realistic. I almost stopped reading at first, because I said to myself, “No one would act toward their kids like Audrey.” And then just a moment of thought made me realize that, “well, I guess there are people like that.” And whereas I would like to think that such people get enlightened, you are probably also right that they never (or rarely) do!

  6. Nymeth says:

    Hmmm…that quote gave me pause. I do very much prefer to spend time reading about character I’ll be able to think of as imaginary friends, but then again, there might be something to be grained from stories about despicable people as well. I’m reminded of Amanda’s recent review of Native Son, for example. Still, my personal preference IS for books with at least one nice character.

    • Nymeth,

      Actually I thought about this a lot, because I’ve read plenty of books on, say, Stalin and Hitler, and enjoyed them as books. So I wondered why I reacted so strongly to this book.

      I think the problem here for me was that children were directly involved, and also the “gutter” language used with the kids (not a problem I suppose in theory, but here definitely a reflection of overall attitude and behavior) really got my back up.

      And yet, because I hated the characters, does that mean I should “downgrade” the rating for the book? That’s a tough one! In the end, I decided that the rating reflects how much I personally like a book anyway, so I would not rate it higher. But it seems like a sticky issue to me and I’m not necessarily content with my approach to it.

  7. Meghan says:

    I’m not sure I always have to like characters to enjoy a book, exactly, but these do not sound like people I want to spend time with. If I decide to read this one, I’m definitely keeping your review in mind and lowering my expectations.

  8. I just wrote on your FINGERSMITH review that I always trust your recommendations (and I do!), but, I still may read THE BELIEVERS at some point, despited your advice to turn in the other direction.

    I do know peope who are experts at manipulating the truth and seeing their own version of reality. I wonder if reading about characters who excel at this twisting might help me to understand these people. Or, it could leave me feeling hopeless and despondent, wishing I had followed your lead.

  9. Sandy says:

    Holy crap. Well, I just won this book in a giveaway, so now I’m scared! Maybe I need to be drunk when I read it, or else I might become enraged. I was nearly homicidal when I read The Glass Castle. I just wanted to beat the crap out of these parents that selfishly ruin a kid’s life.

  10. Darlene says:

    Thanks for the review of this one. I had been wondering about it. I don’t mind reading novels where people seem to be bad no matter what but it’s nice to see by the end of the novel that they’ve changed some. This doesn’t sound like something I’d really like.

  11. Barbara says:

    Now that you mention it, I’ve read tons about Hitler and other horrible historical characters but I guess the difference is that they are real bad guys from history and we must learn from such periods of history. I wouldn’t want to spend time reading about fictional people like you’ve described; I have better things to do with my time.

  12. bermudaonion says:

    I don’t mind despicable characters if there is some balance or some lesson learned. I don’t think this is for me. Great review!

  13. BooksPlease says:

    It sounds hard reading and yet I’m curious about it, but it’s definitely one I would borrow from the library rather than buy. I would much rather read about people like that than meet them in person. I doubt I’d ever understand them, maybe that’s what Heller had in mind when she wrote the book?

  14. Nicole says:

    I commend you for being able to get through it. I got through the first section and even though I am usually okay with characters I don’t like, I just could not go on with reading. I hated everybody. Zoe Heller is certainly a skilled writer, and I have loved other of her books, but I had to leave this one alone.

  15. Ti says:

    I was offered this book to review and passed on it. I am okay with unlikable characters if there’s a purpose to them being in the story. In the author’s defense though, there are people that live like this every day. Ones that never have an epiphany so to speak. Maybe it’s a bit too real.

  16. Just about every review I’ve read of this book agrees with you. I’m taking your advice and running!

  17. I didn’t enjoy this book either. I loved Notes on a Scandal and was surprised by just how different the two books were. If you haven’t read it then I recommend you give it a try.

  18. softdrink says:

    Bummer! I’ve been tempted by this one (and I love the background on the kids’ names), but I think I’ll listen to you and run far, far away.

  19. Marie says:

    Ugh, I couldn’t agree with you more about this book. Just a real bummer of an experience.

  20. Very well written review Jill….I couldn’t agree more. I don’t understand why the author feels that way…why would you want to write a book where your readers feel no connection whatsoever with any of the characters????????????

  21. Belle says:

    This book isn’t really my kind of book (I know you’re not surprised!).

    I really liked what you wrote in one of your reply comments: “I wasn’t glad to have read it; I don’t think I gained anything by doing so.” I’d like to have this on a t-shirt! You said it so well.

  22. Margot says:

    I have a hunch I would be in a depressed mood while reading this book. I’ve worked with similar people (as the characters) but I don’t want in my head for days while I’m reading. I’ll take your advice and leave this one alone.

  23. Alyce says:

    I think sometimes I find value in reading books like this (with detestable characters) to learn and grow (and sometimes gloat that at least I’m not that bad). Other times I do see negative qualities that I recognize in people I have known. And the part that you mentioned about “emotionally damaged people who are drawn to totalitarian systems of belief so that they are personally absolved of individual responsibility for their choices” speaks to me. I have known people like this. I don’t know if I want to read about them right now though. 🙂

  24. JoAnn says:

    I received Notes on a Scandal for Christmas, so I’ll read that first. But I’m not so sure this is for me.

  25. Jenners says:

    I’m running fast in the other direction!

  26. Why would you want to spend time reading about this horrible family?

    Great, great review!!!

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