“The Believers” By Zoe Heller
Reviewed By Michiko Kakutani
New York Times
Nearly all the characters in Zoë Heller’s ambitious new novel, “The Believers,” are true believers. Though each chooses a different vehicle of worship — socialism, liberal humanism, orthodox Judaism or the New Age gospel of self-improvement — they are all in thrall to their own certainty, self-righteous about their own beliefs and contemptuous of anyone dimwitted enough to disagree. They are also believers in their own mythologies: the roles in which they have been cast by their parents or children or followers, the personas they have had thrust upon them and have, over the years, internalized as their own. Zeal is their default setting; sanctimony, their favorite defense.
Whereas Ms. Heller’s two previous novels — “Everything You Know” and “What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal” — were slender tour de forces that used distasteful narrators to explore the related theme of self-delusion and the gap between private feelings and public perceptions, “The Believers” is a considerably larger and messier undertaking. It attempts to give us a group portrait of a wildly dysfunctional family, even as it tackles the big theme of certainty and its discontents.
Ms. Heller, who has worked as a journalist for publications like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, is an extraordinarily entertaining writer, and this novel showcases her copious gifts, including a scathing, Waugh-like wit; an unerring ear for the absurdities of contemporary speech; and a native-born Brit’s radar for class and status distinctions. But “The Believers” is also a somewhat scattershot production: brilliant at times; at others, oddly unfocused.