Zoe Heller‘s latest novel, The Believers, is an impressive feat of tonal control as much as it’s one of plot and characterization. The book follows the lives of the Litvinoff family after its patriarch, Joel, suffers a stroke, throwing a spotlight on how the event challenges each member’s received wisdom about religion, politics, and the basic matters of getting through life. Heller’s strategy is as old as the Book of Job and new as The Corrections: Poke a few holes in that received wisdom and see what spills out. Audrey, Joel’s wife, is an insufferable know-it-all as the novel begins and grows into a downright intolerable harridan who takes joy in emotionally brutalizing whomever she comes into contact with; her daughter Karla increasingly flagellates herself over her weight and infertility; her other daughter, Rosa, undergoes a crisis of conscience thanks to her growing interest in Orthodox Judaism; and her adopted son, Lenny, remains an addict whose minor role in the novel reflects his minor role in life, batted around by others and only half-aware of what’s going on.
Heller’s message is clear, and her calibrations can be obvious; in a lesser writer’s hands, the book becomes a simple lecture on the perils of being hard-headed. One way she avoids that fate is by complicating her characters—Audrey is vicious, but she’s not always wrong, and a few of her targets deserve what they get. But another key to the novel’s success is Heller’s control of the pace of the story, the way that she can accelerate the narrative in it’s more frenzied moments and (the tougher trick) ease the reader into a lower gear when describing a moments of emotional peace. The latter scenes are nearly always the ones focused on Rosa, as she becomes drawn deeper into Judaism. Her faith is new to her, and when Heller studies her emotions the narrative isn’t spiked with the emotional chaos that rattles around in everybody else’s head. For instance:
Rosa looked around at the crowd of Orthodox Jews who were waiting with her for the bus. Almost all of the men were wearing dark suits and oversize black fedoras. The female portion of the group had a slightly looser but no less distinctive dress code that involved long skirts, wigs, and an aggressively frumpy layering of shirts and sweaters and cardigans. Rosa felt exposed and slightly flustered to be consorting in broad daylight with such ostentatiously Jewish Jews. She wondered anxiously if any of the pedestrians walking by on Fifth Avenue mistook her for one of this clan. She turned and considered her reflection in a shop window. The outfit she had cobbled together for this occasion was modest enough to daunt the most lascivious gaze. But, she could see now, she was in little danger of passing for an authentic Orthodox woman. She looked like nothing so much as a mad Victorian governess trying to hide a skin disease.
The paragraph ends with a joke, a slight dig on Rosa’s appearance, but it’s hardly a wound. She’s allowed to keep her dignity, and the words used to describe her emotions (“exposed,” “flustered”) are largely clinical. Compare that to how she describes Karla in a moment when she herself is feeling exposed and flustered:
In the restroom off the hospital lobby, she took a long punitive look at her reflection in the mirror. Her nose was swollen and glowing, a joke-store accessory. Her blouse had ridden up, revealing several intersecting lines of pink and white crenellation where her waistband cut into her belly. She let out a small groan of despair. She had cried—cried about being fat—in front of a stranger.
Heller doesn’t spend the novel mocking Karla—indeed, she’s one of its more respectable characters—but she makes clear that Karla’s self-loathing is deep. She describes it forcefully, setting Karla’s despair off between em-dashes and putting a magnifying glass on her flaws. Rosa’s emotions occur at a distance, something she acknowledges in the midst of her more prominent concerns about faith. Those distinctions will matter once the conflicts increase in the final chapters of the novel, and it also controls the reader to an extent: We’re invited to think about Rosa’s concerns but to feel everybody else’s.
Heller told the New York Times earlier this year that she labored over her treatment of Rosa:
For Ms. Heller, the most difficult part of the novel was depicting Rosa’s slow religious conversion, particularly since the character is so intellectually fastidious. As an atheist, she said, she bent over backward to avoid coming off as condescending or snooty, and her portrait of Orthodox believers is both sensitive and sympathetic. If anything, she said, “I erred on the side of giving them an easy ride.”
It’s true that Rosa’s character emerges as among the more heroic in the novel, but that’s not because of any deliberate sanctioning of Orthodox Judaism on Heller’s part. What Heller so deftly captures are the degrees to which each character succumbs to their feeling. When Rosa appears she’s at the kind of peace her mother and siblings could only pray for (if they were praying types), and Heller has smartly marshaled the words that show it. She doesn’t give Rosa an “easy ride”; her ride just goes down easier.