This book has been chosen as a Great Read.

Author: Zoe Heller

Harper, 2009

Best ebook deal: BooksOnBoard

The Believers is a quiet novel of simple family drama, quiet and simple in that it doesn’t have to employ hysterics or labyrinthine plot twists to create drama.

It primarily concerns Audrey Litvinoff and her three grown children. Audrey is a  sixtyish woman who has defined her life by her combative arch-liberalism and her marriage to Joel, a famous trial lawyer who stars in the showy defenses of Arab Americans accused of terrorist sympathies.

When Joel develops health problems, Audrey and their children—the sheepishly kind-hearted Karla; the prissily demanding Rosa; and the drug-addicted adopted son Lenny—have to reconsider their lives as individuals and in relation to each other, and how they’ve gotten so far away from where they set out to be.

To a certain extent, The Believers is a frightful story; it’s about how smart, considerate, impassioned people can become mired in the ruts of their own living, and how difficult it can be to break free of those ruts, even when they can see them so clearly.

This is realist fiction at its best.

This novel is not without flaws, though. While it has very good drama, it’s not really a page-turner. The vast majority of the narrative consists of characters thinking about themselves or each other, or talking about themselves or each other. It can drag a bit in places, and some of the subplots (such as Rosa’s meandering, half-hearted search for her lost religious birthright) are less interesting than others.

However, it’s always compelling. Heller carves out her characters with warmth and acuity, insight and wit.  She fleshes out each of them individually, giving each their own story, and pausing regularly to crash them back together in ever more revealing ways. These characters aren’t particularly likable, and certainly aren’t flawless, but they’re recognizable and irrefutably human in their flaws.

They also don’t get away with anything. In other books, or especially TV shows, conflicts are often stitched up neatly, with a narrative flourish that sets all the puzzle pieces in their place. Heller’s characters, by contrast, have to deal with painful interactions and repercussions, and they have to struggle against lives that show no quarter, which is even harder, they discover, when you’re not the person you want to be.

Heller blends in politics unobnoxiously (which is harder than it looks), and she tackles bigs issues like jealousy, fidelity, power, class, drug use, and family bonds. Her prose is understated and enjoyable. It never hits you over the head or draws attention to itself, but Heller delivers a steady stream of acute observations and small, perfect lines. She deals with emotion approachably and unpretentiously.

(I realize I’m not telling you very much of the plot, but there are so few concrete plot points that revealing any of them gives away a lot.)

Essentially, this is a well-formed exploration of modern life lived by real people. I’d recommend it for anyone who doesn’t mind a lack of action or theatrics. It’s the kind of book that will either click for you or won’t. Read a chapter (not the prologue) and see which it is.

Similar books: The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen; To The Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf