— The Globe and Mail
“An intelligent, darkly comic and richly entertaining read.”
— Edmonton Journal
“In her portrait of an obsessive and manipulative school teacher [in Notes on a Scandal] . . . Heller displayed her undeniable gift for creating human beings who behave dreadfully. She’s at it again with The Believers.”
— Calgary Herald
“Heller’s skewering of left-wing hypocrisy is so devilishly hilarious.”
— Toronto Star
“Heller has a way with characters. . . . Her fine prose appears effortless.”
— The Boston Globe
“An astonishingly well-observed, slow burner, it’s virtuoso prose compressed and beautiful.”
— The Guardian
“Relevant, expansive, and subtle. . . . A writer of consistently high-class, understated and shattering fiction.”
— Lionel Shriver, the Daily Telegraph
“Heller’s writing in The Believers is never less than stunning: Her eye for detail and ear for dialogue are masterful, if unsettling.”
— National Post
“Heller is at her best here.”
— The Gazette
“Marriage, politics, religion - ha! . . . The Believers is easily Heller’s most ambitious and satisfying book.”
— Globe and Mail (interview)
“Brilliant. . . . This novel’s blackly comic accounts . . . remind the reader of Ms. Heller’s ability, first glimpsed in [Notes on a Scandal].”
— The New York Times
“Funny, sharp, caustic, deft and ruthless.”
— The Mail on Sunday
“This is a novel rich in humour and packed with sparkling dialogue. Above all, it’s a funny and brilliant analysis of what makes families tick.”
— Sunday Express
“A brilliant, brilliant book.”
— Daily Mail
From the Hardcover edition.
From the Back Cover
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.
Hailed by the Sunday Times (London) as "one of the outstanding novels of the year," The Believers explores big ideas with a light touch, delivering a tragic, comic family story as unsparing as it is filled with compassion.
About the Author
As a novelist, before writing The Believers, she published Everything You Know (2000) and Notes on a Scandal (2003), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for fiction and was made into a feature film starring Cate Blanchett and Dame Judi Dench.
Zoë Heller lives in New York.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
New York, 2002
At dawn, on the top floor of a creaking house in Greenwich Village, Joel and Audrey lay in bed. Through a gap in the curtains, a finger of light extended slowly across their quilt. Audrey was still far out to sea in sleep. Joel was approaching shore – splashing about in the turbulent shallows of a doze. He flailed and crooned and slapped irritably at his sheets. Presently, when the rattling couplets of his snores reached one of their periodic crescendos, he awoke and grimaced in pain.
For two days now, he had been haunted by a headache: an icy clanking deep in his skull, as if some sharp-edged metal object had come loose and were rolling about in there. Audrey had been dosing him with Tylenol and urging him to drink more water. But it wasn’t liquids or pills he needed, he thought: it was a mechanic. He lay for a few moments, holding the back of his hand to his brow like a Victorian heroine with the vapors. Then he sat up bravely and fumbled for his spectacles on the crowded bedside table. In a matter of hours, he would be giving the defense’s opening argument in the case of The United States of America v. Mohammed Hassani. Last night before falling asleep, he had made some last-minute amendments to his prepared address, and he was anxious to look them over.
Sometimes, in our earnest desire to protect this great country of ours, we can and do make errors. Errors that threaten to undermine the very liberties we are trying to protect. I am here to tell you that the presence of Mohammed Hassani in this courtroom today is one such error.
He squinted into the middle distance, trying to gauge the effectiveness of his rhetoric. Hassani was one of the Schenectady Six – a group of Arab Americans from upstate New York who had visited an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan during the spring of 1998. Over the last two months, the five other members of the group had all made deals with the prosecutors. But Joel hated to make deals: at his urging, Hassani had held out and pleaded not guilty to all charges.
You have been told that Mohammed Hassani is a supporter of terrorism. You have been told that he hates America and wants to aid and abet those who would destroy it. Allow me to tell you, now, who Mohammed Hassani really is. He is an American citizen with three American children and an American wife to whom he has been married for fifteen years. He is a grocer, a small businessman, the sponsor of a Little League team – a person who has lived and worked in upstate New York all his life. Does he possess strong religious beliefs? Yes. But remember, ladies and gentlemen, whatever the prosecution tries to suggest, it is not Islam that is on trial in this courtroom. Has Mr. Hassani voiced criticisms of American foreign policy? Certainly. Does this fact make him a traitor? No, it does honor to the constitutional freedoms upon which our country was founded.
The basis of Joel’s argument was that his client had been taken to the training camp under false pretenses. One of his acquaintances at the mosque he attended in Schenectady had deliberately misrepresented the camp as a religious center.
That’s right: Hassani traveled to Afghanistan on the understanding that he was to take part in a spiritual retreat. In the coming days, you will hear how he tried, on more than one occasion, to get out of participating in the camp’s mandatory weapons training – purposefully injuring himself in one instance so that he wouldn’t have to fire a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. You will hear how he categorically refused invitations from the camp leaders to become involved in violent actions back in the United States. Ladies and gentlemen, you may take issue with Hassani’s political and religious views. You may feel he is guilty of making an extremely poor vacation choice. But you cannot, in good conscience, convict this man of being a terrorist or even a terrorist sympathizer.
Joel glanced at his sleeping wife. Audrey disagreed with his strategy on this case. She maintained that he ought to be defending Hassani on grounds of legitimate Arab rage. Audrey took a much harder political line than he did on most things these days. He didn’t mind. In fact, he rather enjoyed the irony of being chastised for his insufficient radicalism by the woman to whom he had once had to explain the Marxist concepts of “base” and “superstructure.” When he complained that she had become an ultra-leftist in her old age, he did so in the indulgent tones in which another man might have teased his wife for her excessive spending at the mall. It was a feminine prerogative to hold unreasonable political views, he felt. And besides, he liked having some old-fashioned extremism about the house: it made him feel young.
Joel was still reading when, at 6:30, the radio alarm on his bedside table clicked into life. He peeled off his clammy pajama bottoms, rolled them into a ball, and lobbed them elegantly into the laundry basket. He had been a talented sportsman in his youth – the handball champion of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn – and he had never lost the jock’s habit of improvising minor athletic challenges for himself. He stood up now and stretched in front of the mirror on the closet door. At seventy-two, his nakedness was still formidable. His legs were strong. His chest, carpeted in whorls of gray hair, was broad. His penis was thick and long enough to bump companionably against his thigh as he strode out to the bathroom.
On the landing, he paused. Somewhere down below, he could hear the dim roar of a vacuum cleaner and the tuneless whistling of Julie, his sister-in-law. Ever since Julie had arrived from England two days ago with her husband, Colin, she had been flitting up and down the groaning Perry Street staircase with buckets, dusters, and antibacterial detergents in the saintly manner of Florence Nightingale bringing succor to a Crimean field hospital. Audrey was in a terrible snit about it. The implied insult to her own standards of cleanliness did not bother her, she claimed. (This was plausible: Audrey had always been rather proud of being a slob.) What bothered her was Julie’s faith in the redemptive power of lemony freshness and the assumption that others shared it. “If she wants to practice her neurotic hygiene back home, that’s one thing,” Audrey had hissed the night before, as she was getting into bed. “But I don’t see why I have to put up with her powdered fucking carpet fragrances in my house.”
After he had finished up in the bathroom, Joel put on sweatpants and a shirt and went downstairs. He found Julie on the second-floor landing, fitting the vacuum with a special nozzle for hard-to-reach corners. “Good morning! Good morning!” he cried as he stepped around her. In order to discourage prolonged interactions with his sister-in-law, he always addressed her as if he were calling to her from the window of a fast-moving train.
Down on the first floor, Colin was sitting at the kitchen table, reading a New York travel guide. “Good morning to you, kind sir!” he exclaimed when he saw Joel flashing by. “Julie and I are off to Ground Zero in a bit. Is these anywhere down there that you’d recommend for lunch?”
“Nope, sorry,” Joel said, as he hurried down the hall. “Can’t help you out there.”
“Might I offer you a cup of tea?” Colin called after him.
“No, thanks. I’m going out to get the papers.”
Joel was just opening the front door when he felt an answering push from the other side. “It’s me,” a voice said. “I forgot my keys.”
The door swung open to reveal Joel’s adopted son, Lenny, and Lenny’s girlfriend, Tanya, standing limply on the doorstep, holding paper cups of Starbucks coffee. Tanya was wearing a jacket of ragged rabbit fur over her minidress. Lenny was shivering in a T-shirt. They both had the spectral look of people who had not slept in some time.
“Ah, love’s young dream!” Joel cried with a facetious bow.
“Hey,” Lenny said. He was a tall man with a boyish, delicate face. Were it not for the gap between his two front teeth and the slight droop in his left eye, he would have been pretty. As it was, his raffish imperfections tipped the scale and made him beautiful.
“To what do I owe this rare pleasure?” Joel asked. Lenny was officially living back at home these days, but most nights, he slept at Tanya’s apartment.
Lenny cast a pale hand through untidy hair. “Tanya had a party at her place,” he said. “Somebody pissed on her bed, so–”
“Jesus!” The vehemence of Joel’s tone suggested that it was his own bed that had been violated. “What kind of friends do you have?”
Lenny made a gesture with his hands as if he were pushing down on some invisible volume control. “It’s no big deal, Dad. The guy didn’t mean to. . . . Can we come in? It’s freezing out here.”
“What do you mean, ‘didn’t mean to’?” Joel demanded. “He pissed on her bed by accident?”
“Whatever. Just forget it.” Lenny squeezed past Joel and headed into the kitchen. Tanya followed.
“Oh, sure, go ahead,” Joel shouted after them, “help yourselves to whatever you want. Mi casa es su casa . . .” He stood for a moment, registering the impotence of his sarcasm, and then went out, slamming the door behind him.
Walking up the street to the bodega, he twitched and muttered to himself in disgust. Was it unreasonable for a man of his age and station to expect some peace and solitude in the mornings? Was it too much to ask that he be allowed a few hours of quiet reflection at the...