The Believers

First a vocabulary list:













How did you do?  I had to look up every single one of those words.  But I don’t mind doing that.  The notion of “Why use a 25 cent word when a 5 cent word will do?” suggests that effective communication comes from simple language.  I get that.  However, there’s something to savor and enjoy when fiction gives you a full eight courses of vocabulary.  Will an eight pack of Crayola Crayons do?  Yes, but it’s so much more fun to color having a 64 pack.

Zoe Heller’s The Believers is written with wit and dense language. It’s the first time in a long time that the individual words of a book grabbed me in the same way the plot line did.

The young British Socialist Audrey Howard meets American radical lawyer Joel Litvinoff, they marry and raise three children.  In the midst of defending a suspected terrorist, Joel suffers a stroke which leaves him in a coma.

As the family deals with the incapacitation of their patriarch, each member is challenged in their belief system.  Rosa, the eldest daughter, finds herself drawn to Orthodox Judaism.  Karla, married to a union leader, finds herself attracted to Kahled, to owner of the gift shop at the hospital where she works.  Lenny, the adopted son, drifts from drug to drug and woman to woman.

Here’s a great little excerpt, an exchange between Rosa and the rabbi:

‘I see.  Forgive my asking, but are you by any chance related to Joel Litvinoff, the lawyer?’

‘Yes, he’s my father.’

‘I thought there might be a connection.  I know a little about him.  He is a socialist, no?’

Rosa smiled, remembering all the arguments she had had with Joel over the authenticity of socialism.  “Of a kind, yes,’ she said.

‘And an atheist?’

‘Oh yes.  An atheist certainly.  An anti-theist, in fact.’

The rabbi leaned forward.  ‘An anti-theist?  What does that mean?’

“Well…I guess it means that he thinks religion is a bad thing.’

‘I see.’ The rabbi smiled.  ‘So he disapproves of the God in whom he doesn’t believe.’

The matriarch of the family, Audrey is unblinking in her superiority and grasp of the truth – and Heller writes her as the butt of the joke.  We see her as a rude, condescending, ever offended, destructive figure without much accomplishment.  And surprisingly, even with the unlikable Audrey at center stage, the novel is a great read.