Joel Litvinoff exists at the center of his family in Zoë Heller’s The Believers, but early in the novel he is rendered insensible by a stroke, leaving a void that intensifies and accelerates a family crisis. Before his debilitating stroke, Joel put himself in a difficult situation by agreeing to defend Mohammed Hassani, an Arab American who is accused of being a member of a terrorist cell. Because Joel is an atheist, there is some casuistry in his defense of his client as an apolitical religious Muslim. His strategy requires him to display strong religious beliefs despite his disdain of religion. Instead of spirituality, Joel grounds his beliefs in the politics of revolutionary socialism. He has been known to return invitations to Jewish religious ceremonies with “there is no God” scrawled on them.
It is thus ironic that Joel seeks to cleanse his client of any political convictions in favor of his religious identity. Joel may have been softening his hard-left stance for some time, however: He has been keeping an African American mistress, Berenice Mason, who has New Age religious inclinations. The two have a son, Jamil. When Joel’s already irritable wife Audrey discovers the affair, she is outraged. She realizes that Berenice is not merely one of her husband’s familiar sexual dalliances. Instead, she has been there to provide a perspective otherwise missing in Joel’s life. It is as if he were not only cheating on his wife but also cheating on his own political ideology.
If a new center replaces the sidelined Joel, it is Audrey. She began her life with Joel as an unformed British teenager, but she has evolved into a hard-boiled radical, perfectly willing to defend the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States as an example of justifiable political retaliaton against American power. Her husband was a “red diaper” baby; his formative influences as a child included a Workers’ Children’s Camp at which songs of praise to Stalin were sung around the campfire. However, Audrey, a convert to her husband’s cause, is now more of a true believer. Audrey is the most controversial character in this novel, by dint of her sheer unpleasantness. Priding herself on her utter honesty and on the purity of her politics, Audrey has undergone a sad hardening process as she has aged; she is less a beacon and a standard for her humanitarian causes and more a self-righteous shrew in whom the milk of human kindness has completely disappeared. At times, in fact, she appears to be on the verge of madness.
Audrey’s is not the novel’s ruling consciousness, however. Instead, Heller draws her readers to the perspectives of Audrey’s daughters, Karla and Rosa. Rosa, clearly and somewhat comically named for the famous radical Rosa Luxembourg, had formed her identity very much in compliance with that of her progressive father. Like Audrey, she has positioned herself to the left of Joel, accusing her father of ideological timidity and choosing to reside for several years in socialist Cuba. By the end of this sojourn in what she hoped to be a socialist utopia, however, Rosa has completely lost her faith in her father’s political ideology. No longer a convinced socialist, she also begins to feel that her upbringing has left her surprisingly unformed and unsophisticated.
Working with underprivileged young girls in New York City does nothing to restore Rosa’s faith. In fact, she finds she cannot bear the way in which she believes the ideologies of both sexual revolution and the self-esteem movement have corrupted her charges. She finds Chianti, one of the girls in her program, particularly incorrigible. She especially finds the salacious choreography Chianti has created for her dance project upsetting not only in itself but also because of the welcome it receives on the part of her more liberal coworkers. Unhappy with what she perceives as the sleazy sexuality of youth culture and unsatisfied with her own sex life, Rosa finds herself returning to her parents’ religious roots in Judaism.
Shunning the more modern forms of Jewish faith, Rosa finds herself drawn to Orthodox Judaism, even as this interest throws her into crisis since there are aspects of this faith that seem to undermine her hard-won feminist identity. Her father’s stroke, his subsequent death, and the general unraveling of her family and all their previous identities bring Rosa to a crossroads. She is inspired to once again leave home, this time choosing not the Cuba of her parents’ socialist dreams but instead their worst nightmarean Orthodox...
(The entire section is 1871 words.)