The Believers

I'm not sure I remember the rating I gave this book correctly on the "I am reading" widget, but I think it was A minus.  Normally I'd have to wait for the library to have this book, so it was an unexpected treat when a friend lent me a copy in hardback.

I came to the book with the (mistaken) hunch that the author might be related to Joseph Heller.  But perhaps there was a grain of truth there, in so far as both authors are of the same "tribe".  Ms Heller made a name for herself in the field of journalism and you can read an extract from this book in the Times Online here (she wrote for them).  There's speculation that her background led to some snipey reviews (which it seems she is sensitive to).  The person loaning me the book referred to the Jewish context, so I was alert to this.

Not that you could miss it, many of the aspects are very refreshing in their insights to orthodox Jewish faith and how it sits with the world from the perspective of the daugher raised in a radical counter culture Aetheist family and drawn towards orthodox Judaism in adult life.  Perhaps she is the more engagaing of the three central female characters, but I could not help myself being attracted to her mother more.  I loved the portrayal of the way a life can turn on a youthful whim and one impulse or challenge that finds a reponse.  I think that phenomenon rings true.  I liked the attention to detail in the early scene setting of the novel too and felt that was not kept up so well.  The two daughters are thoroughly mined for comic effect, not only the atheist/Judaism conflict which I find almost as amusing as the "Jews for Jesus" controversy (not featured in the novel).  Rosa's work with underprivileged kids (the name "Chianti" alone deserves a star for comedy!) is clearly not what she was placed on this earth to do and the entire situation is indeed comic, but in this aspect bathos shows through even for Rosa. The other daughter, Karla, lends herself more naturally to bathetic comedy.  Aspects of her nature and her marriage reminded me of many of Updikes female characters, which I think is really a complement to Ms Heller, and in the context of Karla's situation is apposite.

It is clear that Audrey is the true heroine though, and in that respect the book does not let you down, not in the least.  I suppose a cynical reader might find parts of the book are a tad too sweet, but I think this is the authors perogative and the ending is pulled off rather well (having written a poor attempt at a novelette I have gained a much better grasp of the difficulty of satisfactory endings!).

The themes of womanhood, Jewish family life, and "the tribe" are carried through with masterful accomplishment.  I soon realised Joel, the central male figure, had played his part early and was to be a sleeping character.  I found this frustrating, but in the context of a Jewish family the women are so central to life that a man might be in full health and still play no more role in the story than Joel does.  In fact, his condition becomes central to the book and on reflection is quite appropriate, giving full freedom to the exploration of the central female characters.

I was reminded of another author, not Zoe's namesake Joseph, but of Zadie Smith and particularly "On Beauty".  This should be taken by Zadie Smith as a huge complement really (she is some twenty odd years Ms Heller's junior).  Both, however, are at similar points in their writing careers perhaps, on second and third novels.  So far as I recollect "On Beauty" also dealt with family drama in something of a "tribal" way and this must be the chord that is being struck (yes, there is a powerful mother figure too, but also a son and a father who remains present, if innefective).

I'm presently reading another of Zadie Smiths works, "Autograph Man" and surprisingly the protagonist there is Jewish, there are a number of rabis, mention of the kabala and of "goyishness", yet Zadie Smith is emphatically NOT Jewish (yes, I checked!).  To be frank it shows.  I am finding "Autograph Man" heavy going and with none of the easy, comfortable, Jewish family humour riffs.

They say the Jews have all the best jokes, well I think in Zoe Heller they have one of the warmest humourous writers.  The book may not be profound, but it is heart warming and thought provoking.

If pushed to rate this work I'd prefer to say it's in the lower/middle of my highly recommended list - I think that sounds so much better than "A minus"!

And I'd love to hear others comments or responses to mine!  I really have made commenting as easy as possible, you need not even supply a name or email if you're shy!