I picked Come, Thou Tortoise and Zoe Heller’s The Believers based on the Globe and Mail‘s recommendations for 2010. Come to think of it I also read The Believer‘s based on that list. Frankly, I’m coming to distrust their so-called “best” list. All three books have proved to be immediately engaging and with a definite “hook” that must make them marketable, but all of them fall flat, and none more than Heller’s The Believers.
Family dramas can be terrific, particularly if you’re into character (and we all know I’m into character). The Corrections, Songs in Ordinary Times, A Prayer for Owen Meany, I mean really, there are some great family dramas. But The Believers wants so. much. to be one of the “great” family dramas that it ends up over-selling all of the quirkiness of its characters, all of their dramas and their triumphs. The mother, Audrey, is a total pill to everyone around her and to the reader. The fat, no-self-esteem daughter, Karla, is a wet dishrag of no spine. The feminist, activist, now-religious daughter, Rosa, is without direction and intention. The drug-using, mother-using, lowlife, Lenny, is a drug-using, mother-using, lowlife. And in the final twenty pages Audrey repents and (surprise) turns out to be a bang-up lady, just misunderstood and victim to her husband’s career and desires; Karla stands up for herself, leaves her husband and runs away with man who loves her because she is fat; Rosa follows her religious path with conviction; and Lenny is still a lowlife.
My difficulty is that while the novel gives a sense that these changes are taking place (though with a much limited sense of motivation – one sense is not enough to justify life changes), each character changes in isolation from one another. For a family drama there is a remarkable lack of change in the family dynamics, in the family member’s relationships with one another.
So. Close – slick writing, engaging plot. But not quite good – characters act in isolation and with limited motivation.