The Believers by Zoe Heller

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3.5/5 Stars

“If it’s the truth, it has to be right for me, doesn’t it? If you thought you’d found the truth about something, would you walk away from it just because it wasn’t the truth you particularly wanted or expected to find?”

When radically left-wing lawyer Joel Litvinoff suffers a stroke and falls into a months-long coma, his caustic wife, Audrey, and their three adult children discover a secret that affects each and every one of them.

All her life, Audrey has had a knack for assimilating anything to her world view, and now she’s forced to confront a truth that threatens to destroy her firmly held convictions.

With clever insights and sharp dialogue, Heller dares to tell a story about a group of unlikable, cynical, judgmental characters as they struggle with faith and doubt, desperate to find meaning in what has become of their lives, even if it means breaking down the beliefs that have shaped their carefully constructed identities.

Heller is an excellent writer, and if you like books about dysfunctional families, this is well worth a read. There are some books that have you counting down the seconds until you can read more, and while this wasn’t one of them for me, each time I picked it back up I became quickly absorbed.

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What Was She Thinking? by Zoe Heller

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4/5 Stars.

This is the kind of book that really makes you squirm. On the surface, it’s about a beautiful young teacher named Sheba who has an affair with her 15-year-old student. But the interesting thing is that the story is told from the perspective of Barbara, the lonely, strange, judgmental old teacher who befriends Sheba and becomes her confidant before and after she’s caught.

Usually in stories like this we’re given the perspective of the wrongdoer – and even in that case it’s difficult to trust that we’re getting all the facts, since often that individual is deluded. In this case, we get Barbara’s re-telling of Sheba’s story, which makes it all the more unreliable. We can’t help but wonder what Barbara’s real motive is.

Inevitably, over the course of the book we learn more about Barbara than Sheba. What kind of person befriends and protects someone like Sheba? What’s Barbara’s deal?

An uncomfortable read, for sure – and chock full of literary prose that deliver subtle yet creepy insights into these two characters. I only wish Heller had been a little less ambiguous about some of Barbara’s own secrets.