Joel and Audrey Livinoff have been lions in the radical and socialist circles of New York
- always at the forefront of every political demonstration, determined to champion the rights of the downtrodden. Now Joel has been stricken, the victim of a stroke suffered in court. He survives but is left in a vegetative state for months.
Zoe Heller’s The Believers follows the Livinoff family during this time of turmoil. Audrey has been married to Joel for forty years. She is still fiercely committed to the principles they have spent their lives defending, passionate about ideas but much less so about her family. Like many caught up in the fight for mankind, she doesn’t actually like individuals very much at all, finding everyone deficient and not committed enough. She castigates those around her for failing to live up to her ideals.
The three Livinoff children work through their own adult struggles. Rosa, the child most like her parents, has returned from four years in Cuba where she lived in a dirt hut, strangely disoriented and unsure what she believes in. Surprisingly, this daughter of fiercely atheistic parents is drawn to discover what Judaism is about, to find out if its tenets are what she can believe and commit to.
Karla is a social worker, married to Mike and constantly sure that she doesn’t measure up as a woman, a child to her parents, a sufficient wife to her husband. Unable to have children, she and Mike are trying to adopt. Along with this struggle, Karla struggles to make peace between the fiercely fighting members of her own family.
Lenny, the Livinoff’s adopted son and a recuperating drug addict, has never made his way in the adult world and seems always on the verge of another relapse. Strangely, the independent Audrey is most closely attached to Lenny and refuses to hear anything negative about him or about her enabling of his dependence.
Then scandal emerges during Joel’s long hospitalization. The secret makes each of the Livinoffs question what their family stood for and what the truth of their relationships are. Audrey is unsure if her marriage has been
anything but a farce, while the children wonder if their parents are responsible for their adult difficulties.
Heller's incisive book examines the morass of family relationships, how tangled they are and what effect they have on the participants’ life choices. Readers will examine their own lives in the shadow of the truths that become evident as the Livinoff family and its conflicts are laid bare. The Believers is recommended for readers interested in family dramas and how these first relationships have lasting effects on adult lives.