With her sophomore novel What Was She Thinking? Notes On A Scandal, Zoë Heller wound up shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and thrust into the spotlight of literary genius. All the qualities that led her so quickly to those heights—deft, economical characterization, a gift for empathizing with difficult people, and an effortless creativity with language—are in evidence in her latest novel, The Believers. Set among the Jewish leftist elite in New York City, Heller’s story of ideology and identity describes a family of women suffering in secret who destroy each other’s lives almost by reflex.
When Audrey met Joel Litvinoff, an American lawyer visiting her native London, she climbed out of her desultory social activism into a world of elite causes and caviar radicals. Now middle-aged, Audrey is shaken when Joel lapses into a coma after a sudden stroke, and she’s unavoidably beset with a family whose several low-level crises have been simmering for years. Daughter Karla suffers under her weight and her unfulfilling marriage while being indiscreetly wooed by the Arab-American owner of a newsstand in her workplace. Daughter Rosa, for years the only Litvinoff child to embrace her parents’ politics, is drawn to Orthodox Judaism, much to Audrey’s horror. And an embarrassingly shameless bohemian woman reveals that she’s been Joel’s lover for years, with a child to boot.
Heller never writes a scene between these women without revealing the deep ruts that confine their treatment of each other. Audrey is so used to being acerbic and dismissive of her daughters that even when she wants to give them real advice, her unthinking insults get in the way. And both daughters struggle to even contemplate changing the habits that have never brought them happiness. When moments of clarity and decision arrive, they’re hard-won and fleeting. After being immersed in this land of fashionable believers whose faiths have calcified into dogma, those moments feel like little miracles that turn reading into revelation.