The Believers by Zoe Heller Summary
The book opens with a prologue set in mid-sixties London, where Joel Litvinoff, an American civil rights lawyer, meets a young Englishwoman, Audrey. After a brief and apparently casual affair, she decides to go to the United States and marry him. The main narrative then commences in New York in 2002. Joel is 72 and approaching the end of a long and illustrious career as an activist lawyer. He and Audrey live in Greenwich Village and have three adult children: two daughters, Rosa and Karla, and an adopted son, Lenny. Audrey is now an acid-tongued, domineering woman in late middle age who fiercely defends, but never questions, the political stance that has shaped her life. Her most tender feelings appear to be directed towards Lenny, a frequent drug user who is incapable of personal responsibility. Karla, the neglected and under-appreciated oldest child, is a social worker who is married, not very happily, to Mike. They have been trying unsuccessfully to start a family. Rosa works with disadvantaged young girls. She is becoming increasingly interested in Judaism, a faith rejected along with all others by her Jewish parents. For this she is much derided by Audrey. Joel suffers a stroke while in court and is in a coma for most of the time span covered by the book. Audrey is convinced he is not getting proper care in the hospital and creates difficulties for its medical staff. During this time of stress, Karla’s unhappiness with her marriage rises to the surface. She begins an affair with Khaled, originally from Egypt, who runs a newspaper store at the hospital where they both work. Rosa immerses herself in the study of Orthodox Judaism and, though she finds many of its teachings difficult to accept, though she perseveres. A stranger, Berenice Mason, introduces herself to Audrey, claiming that her son is Joel’s illegitimate child. Though Audrey initially dismisses her with contempt, it emerges that her story is true and that Berenice has been receiving regular financial support from Joel. Lenny is persuaded by Audrey’s friend Jean to go to her country home in Pennsylvania for a month in order to get off drugs. He makes great progress there and, when Audrey visits, he proposes settling in Pennsylvania permanently. Appalled by the prospect of losing him, Audrey does her best to discourage the idea. Rosa abandons, and then takes up again, her studies in Orthodox Judaism deciding finally that she must pursue her religious intuitions. Joel dies without regaining consciousness. At his funeral, which is attended by thousands, Audrey gives a eulogy in which she celebrates her 40-year marriage to her husband and makes a public acknowledgment of Berenice and her son. At the reception afterwards, Karla makes a last-minute, momentous decision regarding her own marriage.