Sunday, 31 January 2010

The Believers

The Believers by Zoe Heller. We are reading this one for my next book group meeting, which is probably the only reason I might have to pick it up. While some titles, like 'Howards End is on the Landing', might get talked up in 'bookish' circles, I tend to avoid things that have the words 'The Top Ten Best Seller' scrawled across the top of the cover. I know, I'm sorry, that makes me a terrible book snob, but to be honest I don't care. I read it, and it was a pleasant enough read, but really, really nothing special. It was not "Beautifully, stunningly written" as The Guardian claimed, nor was the Times Literary Supplement more accurate with; "Hilarious, touching, unexpected, moving".

We start out with Audrey, a rather boring, unassuming young woman, trying to fade into the background at a party, encountering a self-consciously forthright American, and she decides to sleep with him. And then we abruptly jump forward 40 years to their married existence, Joel is a successful left-wing lawyer and Audrey ... well, she is now a rather boring, unassuming middled age woman, living vicariously off her husband's notoriety. They have two daughters; Karla, the unloved, neglected, now self-loathing and overweight older daughter, and Rosa, the flag waving socialist, but somewhat disillusioned, younger daughter, just returned from several years living in Cuba. Then there's Lenny, their adopted son. And this is what puts Joel into perspective I feel. Lenny's mother is a political activist/criminal who ends up with a long sentence and in a spirit of social experiment Joel decides they will adopt him and thereby transform his life. When things don't turn out quite as he planned his interest wanes and he appears to go back to his self-absorbtion. So the main part of the book begins with Joel going off to court, only to collapse having had a minor stroke, which is followed by another stroke when he gets to hospital, leaving him in a coma for the remainder of the book. It feels a bit unfair on a character, the only impression you can have of him is via other people, but I am not sure I would have liked him much better whatever happened.

The chapters hop between characters telling their separate stories. Karla is a hospital social worker, married to Mike, unhappily, as it turns out, and unsuccessfully trying to conceive. The only really moving moment in the book for me was a description of their rather stilted love making, and it left me so sad for two people so incapable of sharing ...well anything really:

"At the beginning of their marriage, Karla had found this hesitancy charming. She had attributed it to a kind of gallantry in Mike's part - a reluctance to trouble her with his base, male needs. But then one night, a few years ago, when she had turned to receive Mike's advances a little more readily than usual, she had caught him off guard, wearing a look of such intense unhappiness that she had almost cried out in sympathy. The expression has been equal parts repulsion and resignation - a sort of stoic anguish, like a child squaring up to the task of eating his spinach." (p.72)

Their efforts to adopt, after failing to conceive, become more of a barrier between them rather than something bringing them together, and she finds herself drawn into a relationship with a man at the hospital, who appears to offer her some sense of real caring and affection. Her subsequent self-denial and rejection of him, followed by the eventual abandonment of her marriage and running away into his waiting arms was just the worst of the many tedious cliches that make up the story.

Rosa meanwhile is quietly rejecting everything her parents have bought her up to believe in and is seeking some kind of meaning in her jewish heritage, but in the most extreme form of orthodoxy available. The scorn that her parents seem to heap upon her for the interest she is showing in religion is part and parcel of their general parenting technique. Rosa is thoughtful, intelligent and very politically aware, and I found her being drawn to this kind of dogmatic belief system somewhat unbelievable. The need she plainly has for some sense of 'belonging' reflects very badly on her upbringing. She was the only character that I really found even partly sympathetic.

Lenny is a stereotype drug addict, sucking life out of his family, lying to people, going through endless recovery and relapses. Towards the end of the book he goes out of the city to live for a while with Audrey's friend Jean, and appears to finally begin to pull himself together. He gets a decent sponsor through the local NA, who offers him the chance to learn carpentry and he really seems to be taking his own recovery seriously. Audrey's reaction to this is the same scorn that she heaped on Rosa, dismissing his efforts out of hand and accusing Jean of implicitly criticising her parenting by being apparently so successful at helping Lenny. It speaks volumes about her as both a parent and a person. She loved keeping Lenny dependent on her, doling out money indulgently and relishing his infantile neediness, and she just hates the idea of his putting his life back together. She gets her wish in the end though, when at Joel's funeral he is seen communing with his former girlfriend Tanya and decides to move back to the city and abandon his carpentry plans.

The other tedious cliché revolves around the appearance of a woman who claims to have had a long term relationship with Joel and has a son by him. Audrey has lived for forty years with Joel's indiscreet affairs, why would she react so violently to such an announcement. There is this strange implication that *this* affair has in some way undermined the truth of her relationship with Joel, where all the other ones didn't. What kind of strange logic is that. She was not living under any illusion that she had a devoted husband, and she can at least acknowledge that she is full of bottled up resentment over the life she has led with him. In fact her disdain and anger has become an essential part of her public persona:

"But somewhere along the way, when she hadn't been paying attention, her temper had ceased to be a beguiling party act that could be switched on and off at will. It has begun to express authentic resentments, boredom with motherhood, fury at her husband's philandering, despair at the pettiness of her domestic fate. She hadn't noticed the change at first. Like as old lady who persists in wearing the Jungle Red lipstick of her glory days, she had gone on for a long time fondly believing that the stratagems of her youth were just as appealing as they had ever been. By the time she woke up and discovered that people had taken to making faces at her behind her back - that she was no longer a sexy young woman with a charmingly short fuse but a middle-aged termagant - it was too late. Her anger had become a part of her. It was a knotted thicket in her gut, too dense to be cut down and too deeply entrenched in the loamy soil of her disappointments to be uprooted." (p.173)

I hated her through the whole book. I had no sympathy for anything about her life or the choices she had made. Her behaviour, and the way she treated her children and her friend, left me wanting to slap her (metaphorically speaking). She lurched between hysterical anger and tedious self pity. Selfish and self-absorbed hardly begin to describe the depth of her insensitivity to other people's needs and feelings. I have rarely come across a less sympathetic character.

The title is telling you this book is all about belief; be it religious, political or personal, where it comes from, how easily it can be undermined, how people create their own myths and build their lives around them. I am mainly left feeling that she didn't have anything that original to say on the subject.

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