These Characters Are Insufferable, But This Novel Is Great

If you like unlikable characters you will love Audrey Litvinoff, the sour matriarch of the most joyless, sanctimonious family in New York City (at least they’re contenders for that title.) Zoe Heller’s 2009 novel The Believers tells this family’s story with a remarkable balance of satire and complex emotional depth, skewing its members’ hyper-stereotypical liberal earnestness while lovingly conveying their contradictions. The paterfamilias is the vaunted radical lefty lawyer Joel Litvinoff, who suffers a severe stroke that leaves him unresponsive and reliant upon machines that his wife, for all her strident atheism, refuses to let doctors turn off. All around him, the family members react to the crisis as though performing exaggerated version of themselves, none of which—adulteress, orthodox Jew, heroin addict—come close to the virtuous image they have of themselves.