Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Review - The Believers

I read this book because it was a selection of the Twitter Book Club. This book club first caught my attention with its previous selection of Olive Kitteridge, one of my favorite novels. Why not give The Believers a try?

From the publisher:
When radical New York lawyer Joel Litvinoff is felled by a stroke, his wife, Audrey, uncovers a secret that forces her to reexamine everything she thought she knew about their forty-year marriage. Joel's children will soon have to come to terms with this discovery themselves, but for the meantime, they are struggling with their own dilemmas and doubts.

Rosa, a disillusioned revolutionary, has found herself drawn into the world of Orthodox Judaism and is now being pressed to make a commitment to that religion. Karla, a devoted social worker hoping to adopt a child with her husband, is falling in love with the owner of a newspaper stand outside her office. Ne’er-do-well Lenny is living at home, approaching another relapse into heroin addiction.

In the course of battling their own demons — and one another — the Litvinoff clan is called upon to examine long-held articles of faith that have formed the basis of their lives together and their identities as individuals. In the end, all the family members will have to answer their own questions and decide what — if anything — they still believe in.

Although there are many quirky characters, I was immediately intrigued with Audrey:

Audrey nodded warily. She had never cared for conspiratorial female conversation of this sort. Its assumption of shared preoccupations was usually unfounded in her experience, its intimacies almost always the trapdoor to some subterranean hostility.

As the story moves forward you see that Audrey has become adept at channeling her hostility into an integral facet of her personality. Her acid tongue actually defines her relationship with others -- by turns shockingly funny or plain mean. It's playful banter with her husband; it's tell-it-like-it-is honesty to her friend; and it's definitely one way she carves out some power for herself as the physically small woman living in the shadows of the larger-than-life man. Respect or fear -- doesn't matter, she isn't interested in being liked. What was once an attention attracting cheekiness has over the years ripened to a full-blown up yours attitude in middle age.

This book is one of the most tightly written satires I've read in ages. It's wickedly funny. As I read along, I kept wanting to stop and mark the really great lines but every paragraph produced a zinger of insight about one of the characters.

Here's an example (again about Audrey):

It was terrifying, certainly, to think that her sex life was over for good, but marginally more terrifying to think that it was not. She did not want to become one of those hormone-replacement floozies bopping around in a leather skirt, boasting about her still-vibrant sexuality, trawling in the back of the
New York Review of Books for someone to share her love of Pinter and Klee and rainy days in Montauk.

While I was thoroughly entertained and, at times thrilled with Heller's writing, this book will not be popular with everyone. Like all great satire, it pokes a sharp stick at beliefs. Not just any beliefs, but the ones we hold on to most strongly to give our lives meaning and to define ourselves: religious, political, family roles, loyalty, betrayal, gender roles, racial identity, etc.

Will The Believers be made into a film? I'd be surprised if it isn't. Cate Blanchett as Audrey? Helen Mirren?

Recommended if you liked The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.

The Twitter Book Club will discuss this book on October 26, 2009 at 9:00 pm Eastern Time

1 comment:

caite said...

I remember that when I read and reviewed this one, it was book that people either seemed to like very much...or hate very much.
I am in the like category. They are a rather unappealing bunch...but I still very much enjoyed this book.