Skirmishes in the Family Garden

David Howells/Corbis
Zoë Heller, New York City, January 2007

Zoë Heller’s last novel, What Was She Thinking?Notes on a Scandal (made into the movie Notes on a Scandal ), was a glorious, myopic slide through the tunnel of one woman’s distorted vision. Unnervingly gentle and bracingly funny in its dark, rabbit-hole spiral to horror and despair, it is a nearly perfect novel about the imperfect perspective of warped love. From within the tight, tart viewpoint of Barbara Covett, Heller reveals the seething bosom beneath the dowdy floral print of loneliness. The novel is narrated by Barbara, a solitary, older schoolteacher writing her observations of an affair between a married art teacher and one of her students—but even as the scandalous tale unfolds, it is the eerie insistence of Barbara’s obsession that creates the driving suspense. The novel is a grand opera of loneliness, a tragedy in which the hero is not blinded by passion; rather she is (brilliantly, I think) nearsighted and picky and prim.

What Was She Thinking?Notes on a Scandal was thrilling in its light, deceptive tone, its subtle but irresistible momentum. In The Believers, Heller’s new novel, instead of hurtling through Barbara’s impeccably lonesome tunnel vision, we find ourselves in the midst of a kind of domestic traffic jam that is deliriously crowded with sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers. The Believers is a darkly buoyant book, full of life and irritation and humor and aching disappointment. It is, in other words, a book about a family, and a terrific one.

The novel begins in 1962 in London:

At a party in a bedsit just off Gower Street, a young woman stood alone at the window, her elbows pinned to her sides in an attempt to hide the dark flowers of perspiration blossoming at the armholes of her dress.

The young English woman is Audrey Howard, and it is at this party that she notices a tall American named Joel Litvinoff. “He’s frightfully clever, apparently,” another woman tells her, then “lowered her eyes confidentially. ‘A Jew, you know.'” Once Audrey would have let the woman talk herself into a corner, then revealed that she was herself Jewish. But this time she just walks away. “Embarrassing the prejudices of your countrymen was never quite as gratifying as you thought it would be; the countrymen somehow never embarrassed enough.” Heller’s ability to describe many things in one observation is almost acrobatic. In this one passing ironical thought, she takes on the snobbery of the English, anti- Semitism, the pleasures of self-pity, and the frustrated contentment of revenge. She comes at all her subjects from unexpected angles, with a quick, glancing touch, but even more than the deftness and surprise in her descriptions, it is this remarkable ability to look both in at and out from her characters simultaneously that makes her work so identifiable, so…

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