Book reviews

The Believers by Zoe Heller


After reading Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller a few years ago and loving the story and the writing, I was very excited to come across The Believers by the same author.

Zoe Heller does not create likeable characters. Everyone, excepting two minor characters in The Believers, are horrible. The characters in Notes on a Scandal were unpleasant too.

Joel is the character in The Believers who all of the other characters revolve around. He is a radical American lawyer, married with grown up children. Joel has a stroke in the early pages of the book and spends the rest of the book in a coma. Despite not being a part of the current action in the story, Joel is a large presence in the book.

In the introduction to the story, Joel visits London, where he meets and forms an instant connection with Audrey. Joel is personable and clever, and impresses Audrey with stories of his involvement in various causes. The first section ends with Joel asking Audrey to return to New York with him. She accepts, imagining a romantic and glamorous future together leading the fight against social injustice. The story then skips ahead forty years to the time of Joel’s stroke.

In the introduction, I believed Audrey was clever and likeable, but she turned out to be nasty. Audrey’s foul and abusive language and behaviour towards her children, Joel’s workmates, the staff in the hospital who are caring for Joel, and even her friends, is appalling, throughout the entire book. Her anger is overwhelming. I couldn’t understand why any of the other characters gave Audrey any of their time, attention or love. Audrey doesn’t believe in anyone or anything.

Rosa, Audrey and Joel’s eldest daughter, spent four years in Cuba as a revolutionary socialist, but returned to New York disillusioned with that particular cause. She recently started attending an Orthodox synagogue, much to the dismay of Audrey and Joel, who, along with their own parents, threw off their own Jewishness, calling themselves ‘anti-theists.’ Rosa seems to need something to believe in, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she joined some mad cult after she grows out of her current Jewish phase. (Please note, I’m not commenting on religion, Jewish or otherwise, I am commenting on Rosa’s need for a passion).

Karla is Audrey and Joel’s second daughter. She struggles with her self-esteem and overeats to feel better about herself. She feels trapped in her loveless marriage, but is being pushed by her husband to adopt a child with him. Karla is probably the most likeable of this family and I felt sorry for her. Karla needed to be able to believe in herself. By the end of the story, there was hope this would happen.

Lenny is Joel and Audrey’s adopted son. He is in his 30’s and is addicted to drugs. He sponges off Audrey, who enables his bad habits by supplying him with cash, a roof over his head, meals, even drugs… Lenny probably still believes in Santa Claus.

When Joel had the stroke, a secret relationship and another child were exposed, but somehow, by the end of the book, his family, friends, co-workers and everyone else he ever met still seem to believe he is ‘Saint’ Joel. I’m not sure how that worked.

The Believers is funny and clever, but all of the horrible characters in this story were a little depressing. I like Zoe Heller’s writing but would love to read something more inspirational and joyful from her. Not everyone wants to believe that everyone else is horrible.


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