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27th January
2010
written by Steph
I believe this is a darn good read!

I believe this is a darn good read!

I can’t remember which post a few months ago compelled a whole slew of readers to leave comments suggesting I read Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller, but needless to say the recommendation, while overwhelming, came in loud and clear.  I’ve been trying to limit my book buying this year because I really do have so many books that need to be read, but when Trish emailed me asking whether I’d like to participate in any of the upcoming TLC Tour stops and I saw The Believers by Heller was on the list, I jumped at the chance to do so (which, yes, this means that I received this book for free).  One way or another, I wanted to know what all this Heller hype was about! The Believers is the story of a family, the Livitnoffs, who have more than their fair share of skeletons in the closet.  Joel and Audrey were left-wing activists, fighting for socialist causes back in the ‘60s.  They have tried to instill their extremist beliefs on their children (Rosa, Karla, and Lenny), but things haven’t turned out exactly as they might have hoped.  Lenny is a layabout who only really excels at developing addiction problems; Karla is overweight, infertile, and in struggling marriage; and Rosa has suddenly decided to embrace their Jewish heritage and is dabbling with orthodoxy.  Things take a turn for the worse when Joel collapses during a trial (in which he was defending someone brought up on charges of terrorism) and winds up in a coma, only to have some of his shady secrets finally creep into the light… Oy vey! So, the first thing I’ll say is that I tremendously enjoyed this novel.  I thought the writing was sardonic and bright, and the story itself managed to be a melodrama that actually had some substance beneath the froth.  I’m not ashamed to say that I found this book a whole lot of fun to read, and I was easily able to read it for hours at a time.  I know it’s a huge reviewing cliché to call a book “readable”, but well, that’s exactly what I found The Believers to be. BUT.  (And there’s always a but, isn’t there?)  This will not be a book for every person.  Few books rarely are, but if you are one of those people who needs to LIKE the characters that inhabit a book, then this may not be the book for you.  Because by and large the sympathetic characters in this book are few and far between.  Thankfully I am not one of those people, as I tend to think that flawed characters tend to be: a) the most true to life; and b) the most interesting… but some people get fed up with characters who are mean and nasty, and I certainly see that too.  I think for me I was able to look past the scabs and bruises of these characters because I really found them interesting; I wanted to learn more about them, see how their stories would turn out, even as I was simultaneously repelled by them.  I do think another factor that helped me handle the sheer nastiness of the Livitnoff clan was because it was clear that the Heller does not intend us to like them.  Somehow it makes me feel better knowing that it’s ok for me to loathe the people I’m reading about.  But maybe you feel differently, and if so, steer clear, because while things happen in the book, I’d say it is generally an interpersonal story and one that focuses intensely on each character.  Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of tense, uncomfortable conversations and moments, but The Believers is more about the changes each Livitnoff undergoes in terms of beliefs and ideas (imagine that!), rather than huge life events and external catalysts. I also thought Heller did a really good job of juggling three to four narrative threads at any given time.  I found the storylines of Audrey, Rosa, and Karla all equally interesting but also diverse. I liked the different ways Heller examined the idea of belief through them, whether it be religious, marital, political, or even the belief in self.  It was nice to read several storylines that felt distinct but also thematically resonated with one another, forming this coiling mass that was greater than each individual storyline.  In particular, I have to say I really enjoyed reading about Rosa’s growing interest in Judaism, even though I myself am not particularly religious.  I just found the information about Orthodox Judaism pretty fascinating, and I suppose liked the way that her storyline looks at the role we play in choosing what to believe as well as how sometimes faith is the hardest thing to find.  With respect to Audrey, while I found her the most objectionable of all the characters in the book (I believe I kept referring to her as “a nasty piece of work”), I felt it was only fitting that she is portrayed as a hypocrite, given that she is the character who seems to exhibit the greatest divide between her beliefs and her ultimate actions. I think that Audrey is probably the most interesting character in the book, because there is more to her than simply being nasty.  At this point I’ll go into a few specifics so if you’d like to know nothing more than what I’ve already said about the book plotwise, feel free to skip the rest of this paragraph, but I don’t think it will ruin anything for you if you do read on.  There were two scenes that I thought were particularly searing, because of the piercing accuracy of the emotional truth they contained.  One is when Audrey has the realization that she used to use brash anger and diffidence to cover up issues of low self-esteem and to oddly ingratiate herself with those whom she felt intimidated by.  But now she realizes she has no control over that aspect of her personality, that it has taken her over, and she has became the façade, angry and bitter.  I fount the moment of this realization particularly chilling, because how often do we take the time for self-reflection only to note that we don’t particularly like what we see or that we see someone looking back at us who we don’t entirely recognize as ourselves.  The other moment that also resonated with me is when Audrey is talking to her son Lenny about his drug addiction and he tells her he will be staying away from New York for the time being to help facilitate his recovery.  Audrey’s behavior in this scene is incredibly cold and ruthless, the way she deals with Lenny is abysmally cruel.  But, I recognized underneath all of that negative behavior the fear Audrey was feeling, terrified at the thought of losing her son, and more importantly, losing her control over him.  Power and control is a big deal for Audrey and despite her icy veneer, she wants to feel necessary and needed.  When Lenny says he needs to work on his drug recovery on his own, away from her, it’s a huge wound for her. I’m not proud to say that I related to Audrey in that moment, but truth be told, I did. All told, The Believers is a novel filled with messy truths and is one that I sometimes feel I enjoyed more than I ought to have. It was like an intellectual soap opera – I happily read it, but I didn’t feel like I was rotting my brain.  The writing was crisp and the book readily held my interest.  I’m so glad that I’ve finally gotten to experience Zoë Heller, and will certainly be seeking out her other works in the future.  If I enjoy Notes on a Scandal anywhere as much as I did this, then I’m in for a real treat! Thanks so much to TLC Tours for organizing this for me and to Erica at Harper Collins for hooking me up with this book.  If you’d like to read some other opinions on what other book bloggers thought of the Believers, be sure to check out these other stops on the tour: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 Raging Biblomania Thursday, January 28, 2010 Life in the Thumb Tuesday, February 2, 2010 Write for a Reader Wednesday, February 10, 2010 A Reader’s Respite Thursday, February 11, 2010 The Brain Lair Monday, February 15, 2010 Book Club Classics! Tuesday, February 16, 2010 lit*chick Wednesday, February 17, 2010 Sasha and the Silverfish Thursday, February 18, 2010 Nonsuch Book

15 Comments

  1. 01/27/2010

    Steph.. I might be one of those who suggested you read Notes on a Scandal, if I remember right. Some commenters said The Believers isn’t very similar to Notes.. so there were some who liked Notes but didn’t Believers, while others who liked Believers a lot more than Notes.
    Anyway, I don’t mind flawed characters for as long as they are portrayed honestly and believably. I’m looking forward to reading this one.. glad you liked it!
    She also has another novel, an earlier one, with a purple cover. Some say it’s more like The Believers than Notes..

  2. I didn’t like this book at all! It was very well written, but I didn’t like the characters and I don’t enjoy religious/political discussion in a book.

    I loved Notes on a Scandal though! It will be interesting to see whether you enjoy both books!

  3. 01/27/2010

    Steph,
    Very astute review! As you know, I felt pretty much the same as you did about this book, but I really liked how you mentioned those two distinct moments when Audrey both reveals how she became the way she was and the way she tries desperately to hold on to Lenny. I also agree that this was a highly entertaining read, and I think calling it an “intellectual soap opera” is a uniquely fitting description. I think you will definitely enjoy Notes on a Scandal. The people in that book are just as unlikeable, and just as compelling. Both of these books are favorites of mine and I will be really interested in hearing what you think about Notes. Heller just has a hell of a writing style, and the ability to make even the biggest cretins seem interesting.

  4. 01/27/2010

    I am so happy you likes this book! I read it last spring and loved it. I think one of the things Heller does very well is write about people who aren’t very likable. I admit, though, I didn’t enjoy this one nearly as much as Notes on a Scandal, which is just as juicy and well done as anything I’ve read. Very dark humor. I think you will like it.

  5. 01/27/2010

    @ claire: I am confident that you were one of the people who suggested that I read Notes (one of the reasons why I took the recommendation so seriously! Even though we don’t have identical reading tastes, I always value your opinion and give it great weight!). I think you’ll like this book, though not sure if you’ll love it more than Notes (though of course I can’t compare the two). It’s a great book for when you want a book that moves quickly.
     
    @ Jackie: I went back and read your review, and I can see how this book might be more tedious for someone who doesn’t enjoy reading about religion or politics. For me I felt that because Rosa was learning about Judaism, it was more accessible for me – if the discussion had been more high-level I might have been lost!
     
    @ zibilee: I really enjoyed reading your review, in part because it echoed my sentiments so thoroughly! After claire’s comment I was a bit worried that maybe readers were divided into two groups: those that like The Believers, and those that like Notes. I’m glad to hear that the Venn diagram can overlap and that you enjoyed both!
     
    @ Priscilla: I think you’re right about Heller’s affinity (as it were) for nasty folk – it takes a special talent to walk the fine line so that your characters are repellent but also sufficiently interesting for your readers. I definitely liked her sense of humor here, so I’m really looking forward to Notes.

  6. 01/28/2010

    Excellent review! I’ve only read one Heller book, Notes on a Scandal and I really enjoyed it and thought her writing was excellent! I’ll definitely keep my eye out for this one.

  7. 01/28/2010

    Wonderful review! I received Notes on a Scandal for Christmas, and will be reading that soon. Flawed characters aren’t a problem for me, either, and they sure do make a book more interesting. Look forward to reading this one at some point.

  8. yet another erudite review. i don’t think that i’m going to pick this one up, but i am sure it has merit. i don’t mind flawed characters either, but i tend to enjoy a book more when i can connect to the characters on some level.

  9. 01/28/2010

    WOW. Your review totally blew me away. I think it’s hard to find the motivation behind someone like Audrey because it’s just so painful to watch, but if you dig below the surface, you’ll find a sympathetic character. You’ve convinced me to read this book! Thanks for being on this tour! 🙂

  10. 01/29/2010

    @ Mrs. B: I haven’t read Notes, but I’m really looking forward to it after this one! The writing was definitely one of the book’s perks.
     
    @ JoAnn: Glad to hear flawed characters aren’t a problem for you (otherwise this would not be the book for you!) – some people need to be able to root for the characters they’re reading about, but so long as they’re not willfully stupid, I don’t have to like the people in my books.
     
    @ nat: It’s nice to hear you found the review “erudite” – I tend to feel like I’m just nattering on about whatever pops into my head, but there might be kernels of brilliance in there! 😉
     
    @ trish: I agree that it’s a lot easier to just write Audrey off as a witch, but I think Heller did a great job of building the case that she was a lot more complicated than that. You had to work to find the human aspects of her, but they were there!

  11. 01/30/2010

    You’re becoming hazardous to my tbr pile. 😀

    Great review. I haven’t read any of her books, but I’m hoping to get to this one!

  12. 02/01/2010

    @ softdrink: This was my first Heller, but I really enjoyed it a lot. I really can’t wait to read Notes on a Scandal!

  13. Kay
    02/12/2010

    Once more, great review Steph!

    I’m all there with you when you say “I tend to think that flawed characters tend to be: a) the most true to life; and b) the most interesting…”. Flawed characters, when nicely written, really do tend to break out from the stereorypes.
    I can’t wait to read this one, as I just received my copy last week. I read about 30 pages of it at the bookstore (thanks to their very comfy chairs) and really enjoyed the writing. You’re review made me even more curious about the characters.

  14. 02/12/2010

    @ Kay: I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this one! I know you don’t tend to require likable characters in your fiction, so I’ll be curious to see what you think of the Livitnoffs! 😉

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