Sunday, July 25, 2010

Thoughts on a book: The Believers

I sometimes wonder what motivates me to pick up a book, or a collection of books.  Is there something subliminal that guides my hand, or am I simply having a "like that cover" day?  

Last week I picked up a copy of The Believers by Zoe Heller.  The blurb lead me to think it would be a good book to read that I wouldn't have to struggle through like the last one (The Yiddish Policemen's Union, mused upon earlier this month), determined as I had been to finish it, despite not being sure I was enjoying the ride.

The Litvinoff family, yes its another book with Jewish themes, are the characters.  Parents Joel and Audrey dominate the lives of their three children: adopted Lenny, doormat Karla, and about to be born-again Jew Rosa.  After a brief opening which paints Joel and Audrey in their familiar mariage, and describes their relationships with the three adult children, the remainder of the book deals with the aftermath of Joel's stroke.  There are no medical elements to overwhelm the reader, instead the details are of the life the family thought they knew, and what had in fact been happening instead.

I found parallels with Audrey's observation of her new life while Joel lingered in hospital

"By day she sat at Joel's bedside, in a narcaleptic stupor: by night she rattled around the Perry Street house, a lone pea in an oversized pod.  Her domestic life, which for forty years had been framed by Joel's clamorous, demanding presence, had become a shambolic, unpunctuated was simply that without Joel she didn't have the gumption, the discipline, to call a halt to the day by herself."

...and that odd feeling that comes later when life keeps on going

"A few nights ago, Jean persuaded Audrey to accompany her to an anti-war meeting in Chelsea.  Audrey needed to get out in the world and recharge her batteries, she said....It had seemed a reasonable enough idea at the time.  But the outing had proved to be a terrible mistake.  Ausdrey was not ready to put her personal calamity in the perspective that social life required.  It did not reassure her to know that life in the great world was going on as before: it offended her."

Oh I know that feeling, but the rest of the story belong entirely to the Litvinoffs.  The women were overshadowed by the life their parents led and undermined in the lives they created for themselves.  They seemed to be unplanned by-products of a thisty sexlife and just had to be endured and bullied into adults.  Nothing either woman does meets with parental approval, only in the last pages does Audrey show any empathy for Karla and she isn't even around to hear it.  Their adopted brother, addicted to heroin and whatever else he can persuade his doting mother to pay for, seems to have slipped through life without boundaries and at thirty-four is still only a sketchy man.

It might not sound like a great story, but its a good read and I did indeed stay in bed this morning til I finished it, BECAUSE I wanted to finish it.  I may even keep the book, a positive affirmation in a house with many bookshelves and all of them full.

The Believers - Zoe Heller, Fig Tree (Penguin) 2008

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