Book reviews

Archive for the ‘Heller – Zoe’ Category

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.

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller


I watched the movie, Notes on a Scandal years ago and enjoyed it very much, but the book, Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, is an absolute ripper. The cover art on this edition, by a tattoo artist named Valerie Vargas which was issued as part of the Penguin Ink series, is also enormously appealing.

The book’s narrator, Barbara Covett, is an almost retired school teacher who is disliked by staff and students equally. Her words are beautifully chosen, biting and precise, as she describes the predicament of Sheba Hart, a fellow teacher at St Georges School, who has been found out having an affair with a student.

Sheba, and art teacher, was new to teaching when she started at St Georges, and although entirely unable to control her students, she quickly became popular with other teachers. Barbara, who is almost completely isolated socially after a falling out with her dear friend Jennifer, is also infatuated with Sheba’s bohemian style and upper class manners and vies with other teachers for Sheila’s attention. Heller’s presentation of Barbara’s loneliness is painful to read.

Sheba seems almost desperate for admiration, and starts an affair with a Year 11 boy, Steven Connolly. When the affair is found out, Barbara becomes Sheba’s companion, in hiding from the media after Sheba’s husband Richard kicks her out of the family home.

Every character in this novel is a predator to some degree. Barbara controls Sheba’s situation to force Sheba to depend on her and her alone, Sheba’s husband is much older than Sheba and Barbara’s presentation of their history shows Sheba being selected and groomed by Richard as his second wife. Steven preys on Sheba to force the affair and of course Sheba, who is in her forties with children of her own, has preyed on Steven, by encouraging his schoolboy lust for her.

Barbara, in a supposed attempt to present the ‘true’ version of the events, as opposed to the lies and distortions which are appearing in the media, writes what becomes Notes on a Scandal, pumping Sheba for more and more information about the affair. Eventually Sheba finds Barbara’s notes and realises that Barbara was responsible for the affair becoming public.

Barbara appears to be a lesbian who has never experienced a love affair of her own, although this is never confirmed by actual words or actions in the book. Barbara writes that society is unwilling to forgive or accept love or lust in any other form than the norm, and in her narrative, presents Sheba and Steven’s affair almost as a case in point.

The affair itself is hard to understand, at least from Sheba’s point of view. Steven simply says Sheba is “hot,” which from a 15 year old boy, is straightforward enough. But as a forty something year old woman, I can’t understand Sheba’s attraction to Steven. Fifteen year old boys were fascinating when I was a teenager, but now? Not very. For a woman to risk her marriage, children, career and position in society seems ridiculous.

I read Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, many years ago and found it to be much more disturbing than Notes on a Scandal. I don’t know if that is because of the reverse gender issue with a teenage girl and older man (and I do recognise my hypocrisy), or if my unease is because of the more explicit telling of Lolita and Humbert’s affair. Either way, both books work (as art’s purpose is to create an emotion in the reader or viewer).

Moral questions aside, Notes on a Scandal is a wonderfully written book. I don’t have a point scoring system for my reviews, but if I did, this book is five out of five.


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