Sunday, March 15, 2009

#17 - The Believers

Before my head almost exploded from far too many rewrites of my latest Classic Start, I finished Zoë Heller's excellent The Believers. Familiar in tone and even basic story to Mark Haddon's similarly good A Spot of Bother, the novel begins with patriarch and left-wing lawyer Joel Litvinoff having a stroke in court. Rushed to the hospital, Audrey, Joel's cranky, opinionated and almost unlikeable wife, joins her children in the vigil by his bedside. Heller uses the traumatic situation to explore the family dynamics between Joel and Audrey, their daughters Karla (married to Mike) and Rosa, and their son Lenny. Each suffering from their own particular brand of unhappiness, the novel pulls the family apart like stringy cheese before she melts them all back again for the final scenes.

Despite the fairly Ann Patchett-like twist that I felt was kind of unnecessary (and that I won't spoil here), I can't think of a book I enjoyed so thoroughly in the last few months. Family drama lends itself nicely to Heller's voice and characterization. And she never shies away from conflict or uncomfortable situations in her novels, the kind of Sunday afternoon family dinners that can be so painful yet necessary are dissected with her clinical eye for weakness and exploited for their dramatic values throughout this novel.

Of the interwoven stories, I enjoyed Karla's the most -- a social worker dedicated to helping others and pleasing her union-boss husband (he wants to have kids; they're trying; then perhaps adopting) -- she begins an awkward, unlikely affair with the owner of the newspaper stand in the hospital where she works. The love affair with Khaled proves a catalyst for Karla to change her life and her evolution was the most satisfying. Not that Audrey's acerbic, sharp-tongued personality wasn't engaging, but it wasn't until the novel explored how she came to love her troubled (drug addicted) son Lenny that she truly felt human to me. The opening parts of the book did a little to set up that side of her, but it was Heller's unwavering honesty about Audrey's maternal limitations that finally brought her into full colour. Rosa and Lenny (the former exploring religion; the latter tumbling back into his heroin habit) also had their time in the narrative sun but, by the end, I just felt Karla's story was the most satisfying.

Annnywaay, small criticism for a book that does just what a literary novel should: create characters that challenge their environment, that evolve throughout the pages, that highlight the particular human problems that modern, Western families face today. A deep-seeded unhappiness guards their every move, despite their apparent affection for both each other (even if that's hard to get at) and for their dying father. He's larger than life, and they're all just trying to escape from his high-afternoon shadow. And regardless of their particular beliefs, whether personal, political, religious or simply philosophical, not a single member of the Litvinoff family survives unscathed from Joel's illness, and nor they should.

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