I have arrived at Planet Zoe Heller far behind the rest of the world and so opened her latest novel The Believers, published by Penguin Fig Tree, with little knowledge about the author beyond a hugely successful second novel in Notes On a Scandal (which I haven't read) and which was made into a hugely successful film (which I haven't seen).
But ignorance is often to my advantage as I then read with no pre-conceived ideas or expectations, could make no comparisons with previous reading and so in I jump.
Immediately I was reminded of one of my best reads of 2007, When We Were Bad by Charlotte Mendelson.
Forgive me for saying it but there is no dysfunctional family I love more than a Jewish one, there just seems to be so much material to work with.
So much dysfunction to elaborate on in fact, that the Anglican dysfunctional family just can't hold a candle to it all, and like the London Rubins of Charlotte Mendelson's wonderful novel, the New York Litvinoffs of Zoe Heller's aspire to dizzying new heights of family angst. Now I'm also reminded of the memorable Glickmans in Kalooki Nights by Howard Jacobson, (which I loved but everyone else I know seemed to loath) and there must be plenty more you can all add.
Joel and Audrey meet at a party in London in 1962 and on the spur of a very brief and momentary acquaintance, Audrey agrees to travel back to New York with Joel, a lawyer, and marry him. That's about all we know because the novel moves swiftly on forty years to 2002 by which time there are daughters, Rosa and Karla, an altruistically motivated adoption resulting in n'er do well son Lenny, and the dysfunction is rife.
It's hard to manage an ounce of sympathy for the acid-tongued, self-destructive person that Audrey has become and her views on motherhood sum it up, this is the complete antithesis to the archetypal Jewish mother as we know her, Audrey has in fact perfected the art of being the non-Jewish-Jewish mother
' Audrey had never evinced the slightest sentimentality about children...she had tended to think of them as trainee humans. Inadequate adults. She loved her own daughters well enough - wanted them to be happy and so forth - but they had failed to inspire in her that mad lioness passion to which other mothers so preeningly testified.'
Just as I thought I was getting to know Joel, building up a picture of the working man, husband and father, circumstances which I won't reveal silence him, and thereafter the picture is painted only through the eyes of others, so when the skeletons start rattling in the cupboards it becomes far too easy to jump to wrong conclusions based on what we think we know of Audrey. You'd give the man a sainthood at least for coping with her vitriol, forgive all misdemeanours in an instant, but I had all too-easily and quickly forgotten early misgivings about Joel in the face of Audrey's ghastly behaviour until Zoe Heller eventually called me to order. Audrey incidentally vile to all except poor Lenny, the drug-fuelled "kid" (prepare to catch your jaw when you eventually find out how old he is) who somehow extracts a rather late-flowering and misguided maternal instinct from his presumably guilt-ridden adoptive mother.
Interestingly at her talk last week Elaine Showalter asked if anyone had read The Believers and in the context of Fidelity by Susan Glaspell. I wanted to jump up and shout ' ME ME, I HAVE' but am glad I didn't because I don't think I was meant to; posed more as a rhetorical question in order to make a comparison between two books, which as
"Showalter elaborated " both examine issues of fidelity to a set of values and to a faith in those values, and in an instant ...*ping*...I had a good handle on Zoe Heller's book.
Clearly professors know these things better than the rest of us.
The three women in the immediate Litvinoff family all have a set of values to be challenged, and this in strong contrast to other women outside the family who all seem to know their own minds. Audrey must confront the state of her marriage, as must the plump, well-nourished daughter Karla who finds herself wedlocked into a sad state of misery, whilst sister Rosa finds her atheist upbringing weakening and crumbling under a late-onset attraction to Jewish orthodoxy.
Finally perhaps Audrey unwittingly and slightly wishfully puts her finger on the very intrinsic Biblical Jewishness of this seemingly very un-Biblical Jewish family,
'ours was a joyous tribe.'
I'd question the 'joyous', but the 'tribe' seems about right if you regard it as a group of people related by blood or marriage who do their best to get along rather than inflict all out war on each other.
It's all beautifully woven together, moments of unaccustomed poignancy when each woman faces up to the reality and inner truth of her situation as events unfold, all making Planet Heller a friendly, welcoming place.
Having arrived and found the air much to my liking I'll stay a bit longer and catch up on those I've missed.