ZoŽ Heller is a witty, observant portraitist of misanthropes. She takes a bit of a risk with her brisk, showily unsentimental protagonists whose surface confidence hides layers of rage. Rage can be gripping and funny. But overconfidence in one’s harsh judgment of others and blindness to one’s own pursuit of vast, subterranean emotional needs are qualities tougher to reform and harder to warm up to, than, say, the emotional haplessness mined by Nick Hornby.
Yet there exist people who undernurture their children, who imagine they are strong and independent when they engage the world with barbed quips, and who discover when life plots for them an unforeseen loss that they have contributed to the pain of others and set their own pointless limits. The Believers, Heller’s third novel, gives us a family presided over by one such spiky matriarch. A quick prelude set in 1962 London shows a snapshot of Audrey in her prime. She is young, pretty, and devoutly left-wing. The working-class child of Polish-Jewish immigrants, she feels her own kind of poignant, self-serious, aspirational shame over the dowdy provinciality of her surroundings. At a party, she stands apart, “wearing the braced, defiant expression of someone trying not to feel her solitude as a disadvantage.” She meets Joel, a gregarious American lawyer and champion of causes who is working for the Freedom Riders and looks to have enough joie de vivre for two. He’s the extrovert who can break through her shell.
Move ahead to 2002: Joel and Audrey got married and settled decades ago in Greenwich Village. Joel, having fulfilled his promise as a celebrity radical lion, remains the same old happy throwback. He is far more accepting of contradictions, political and otherwise, than the orthodox Audrey—and more inclined to ogle and philander, as if it were still 1962. They live in a creaking Perry Street town house, where Audrey takes pride in her lousy housekeeping (Heller is a funny botanist of unexpected species of self-mythologizing). One morning, Joel sets off for the courthouse to defend Mohammed Hassani, a man accused of plotting against America as part of “the Schenectady Six.” In the courtroom, Joel collapses from a stroke. He remains alive but in deeper danger than Audrey is willing to admit.
Well braced against new insight, Audrey is the novel’s unbending tree trunk through the first half of the story. The plot spreads out to her motley trio of grown children. Rosa is pretty and judgmental like her mother—though a little less sarcastic, a little more righteously sincere. To Audrey’s scorn, she has come home from a stint in Cuba not just disillusioned with socialism but toying with a turn toward Orthodox Judaism. This is the most compelling tangent in The Believers, because of Heller’s engaged evocation of the concrete steps Rosa’s conversion entails. She starts out with “mild, touristic curiosity”; later, she is distressed to learn that a mikvah bath is not the relaxing spa experience she expected but a stark ritual, requiring the third-party inspection of her pubic hair. Yet Rosa keeps walking down this path. At times, Heller suggests she is learning to correct unhappy patterns, but she does seem to be switching one set of strict rules, those requiring her to be in history’s vanguard, for another, a code urging deference to “Hashem, a power and an intelligence that passes all human understanding.”
The other children are more comical. Daughter Karla, fat and the family’s emotional doormat, is married to a union organizer; a stereotype vaguely reminiscent of The Wedding Crashers boorish environmentalist, he’s a trap to be escaped. This leaves Karla open to touchingly awkward romancing by the apolitical, roly-poly Egyptian-born owner of a newspaper kiosk. Then there is son Lenny. He was adopted at the age of seven, after his activist mother went to jail for killing a cop during a failed bank robbery. Because he is less connected to her than are her imperfect daughters, the fractured, evasive Audrey loves him without boundary or judgment. Even her motherly love isn’t quite right. She has encouraged Lenny’s charming fecklessness and enabled his drug use.
The Believers is consistently entertaining, deftly constructed to gain emotional and moral heft as it rounds out its characters. For satiric purposes, though, its message, aimed at the unreconstructed New York left, feels at times rather marginal. By the new millennium, the universe of Americans— even the universe of committed lefty Manhattanites—who would have required a few years in Cuba to see that something was wrong with their great expectations was thankfully small. In the years since, war and Katrina and “the fierce urgency of now” have further severed hope from utopian doctrine and brought it back into the world, where it’s needed. It’s worth noting the ways in which Heller, London-born but for many years a New York resident, has expanded her toolkit with this novel, extending her observations to a wider circle of inner lives. Still, if this is mostly an American family, the dominant voice is that of British Audrey, the ostentatiously stoic, prefeminist decrier of hypocrisy. She feels less a representative of the way we live now than a vivid tribune from the past, a past that is recent if you count in years, but further and further away.
Sarah Kerr writes on books and culture. She lives near Washington, DC.