"The Believers": a life spent a few steps behind
British novelist Zoë Heller's "The Believers" is the life story of Audrey, a "defiantly unlovable" character who could give a rip about what everyone else thinks.
Special to The Seattle Times
by Zoë Heller
Harper, 335 pp., $25.99
British author Zoë Heller knows how to make her readers squirm. Just pages into her new novel "The Believers," we're sharing her character Audrey's discomfort at a sticky-hot summer party at a London flat.
The three men talking with Audrey are "a small anthology of body odors"; some of the female guests display "poultry-white" legs; the party's host has "something unsettlingly pubic about his beard."
That Audrey meets the love of her life, Joel Litvinoff, at this ghastly 1962 get-together is the book's first joke; that Joel enters a stroke-induced coma 40 years later and leaves Audrey with the pieces of his life to put together is its biggest. A prickly woman who lives in the shadow of her larger-than-life husband (Joel is a well-known radical lawyer), Audrey is the sort who never worries about who likes her. She's indifferent to the troubles of her adult daughters Karla and Rosa; scornful of friends who have lived what she calls "the child-centered life." And when secrets from Joel's life appear, Audrey meets them with the only strategy she knows: harsh words and dismissiveness.
As in her last novel "What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal," Heller creates characters who are defiantly unlovable. Throughout, the novel has a refreshing dryness, a tart economy with words that suits its subjects. Though Karla, struggling with infertility and a dismal marriage, and Rosa, experimenting with Conservative Judaism, take over much of the narrative, it's Audrey who stays with us, despite a last-act change of heart that rings a bit false. Visiting a friend, Audrey remembers Joel's way of never feeling uncomfortable in the countryside: "He had simply filled its creepy stillness with his energy and noise; transformed it into another outpost of Joeldom."
Through her perspective, we piece together the 40 years this novel skips over, a life spent perpetually a few paces behind.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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