Standing in the shadows
Heller's wickedly funny look at a family's unraveling.
When Audrey Litvinoff’s famous liberal-lawyer husband Joel falls victim to a stroke, she is left behind to deal with their rapidly unraveling family and a secret that makes her second-guess their entire marriage. But if this description of The Believers—the fantastic new novel by What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal author Zoë Heller—leaves you expecting to feel sorry for poor Audrey, think again. A bristlier, more complicated character is hard to recall in recent fiction. And that’s just the way Heller intended it.
“I think there’s excessive emphasis on the need for likable people in fiction—people you admire or even are inspired by,” said Heller, who spoke to BookPage from her home in the Bahamas. “The job of fiction is not to present likable characters. It’s to present interesting characters. And I find [Audrey] funny. You can’t be without interest in someone if they make you laugh.”
Indeed, The Believers is chock-full of engaging characters who revolve around one another in present-day New York City. There’s the bitterly funny Audrey, who seems hell-bent on alienating everyone around her in the days following Joel’s stroke—her family, the medical staff taking care of Joel and anyone else she encounters.
Then there are the Litvinoff children, all of whom have their own surprising reactions to Joel’s demise. Rosa, a beauty who has spent her adult life as an ardent atheist and Marxist, suddenly finds herself drawn to the Orthodox Jewish faith of her ancestors. Karla, a dowdy social worker whose husband treats her as though he did her a favor by marrying her, is on the brink of starting an affair with a colleague. And Lenny, their youngest, is sinking further into drug use.
While the subject matter is no joke, in her impossibly silky British voice—she lived in London before moving to New York City in the mid-’90s—Heller laughs about her inspiration for these powerful characters. Rosa, it seems, was inspired in part by Heller’s own self-righteous adolescence.
“I was a fantastically sententious 12-year-old, berating my sisters for shaving their legs and such,” she said. “I suppose I was dredging up memories of my own past. Rosa was the hardest to write, going from militant atheism to religion. I’m sort of a skeptic by nature, and never had religion. I wanted to write about it without being patronizing.”
Karla, it seems, was an easier character to sketch. “Karla was actually my attempt to write a ‘good person’ and the problems that come with being a good person,” Heller said. “People object to her passivity, but I know very few women who haven’t had at least a few moments of self-loathing.” Heller’s own self-loathing moment, at least as a writer, came as a young journalist who’d recently settled in America. She quickly carved out a niche writing dispatches about her life and experiences for London newspapers, being dubbed one of the first female “confessional writers.” But Heller had her doubts about the worth of this brand of journalism.
“I felt slightly ludicrous writing ‘whither America’ pieces,” she admitted. “I think it caused a great flurry of similar ‘girly about town’ columns. I often get credit that I created this terribly grotesque genre.”
After living in Manhattan for several years with her husband, screenwriter Larry Konner, and their two daughters, the family temporarily relocated to the Bahamas because, well, they could.
“We realized we were both writers, and the theory was we could write wherever we wanted,” she said. “We considered Morocco, and then ended up, slightly dully, in the Bahamas. It’s warm, which was one of the chief criteria, and there was school for the kids.”
It was a surprisingly easy transition for this self-proclaimed “big-town girl.” Her children, now ages five and nine, have transformed into “island children” who can dive and surf, although the older daughter did recently confess she missed the dirty subways of New York.
Writing during this relocation to paradise has been a bit tougher than expected.
“Slightly grim interior spaces are the best place for me to write,” she laughed. “But, there are all sorts of things I want to write about as a result of being here.”
Which is a relief. With three novels under her belt now, including Notes on a Scandal, which was made into a movie starring Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, and this newest, the screen rights to which have already been bought, one would think Heller would see smooth sailing. But she still admits to a dread of writer’s block.
“I slightly live in fear of not having anything else to write about,” she said.
You wouldn’t know it by reading The Believers. It’s a richly detailed, deeply insightful peek into what happens to one family when the star of the show leaves the spotlight. In the wake of Joel’s stroke, Audrey makes some poor choices—and some unforgivable remarks—but Heller allows glimpses into the years of adultery and standing in the shadow that led to her current behavior:
“The wives of great men must always be jealously guarding their positions against the encroachments of acolytes, and Audrey had decided long ago that if everybody else was going to guffaw at Joel’s jokes and roll over at this charm, her distinction—the mark of her unparalleled intimacy with the legend—would be a deadpan unimpressability. ‘Oh, I forgot!’ she often drawled when Joel was embarking on one of his exuberant anecdotes. ‘It’s all about you, isn’t it?’ ”
“I attempt to describe something of the process, of why would she become so awful,” Heller said. “I always wonder about the wives of famous, charismatic men. It must be hard going home with the clown or the charmer. It must be hard living with that person.”
After finishing the promotion of The Believers, Heller and her family will move back from the Bahamas to that other island, Manhattan, this summer. Living in the tropics has its perks, sure, but Heller is already clearly in a New York state of mind. She doesn’t miss a beat when asked what she’s missed the most about big-city life: “Take-out food.”
Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.