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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 48.0° F  Fog/Mist
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A Book A Week: The Believers by Zoe Heller

My mother used to remark on our odd habit of watching TV shows about people we wouldn't want to live next door to. Reality TV hadn't been invented when she said this; I think she was talking about All in the Family. But Zoe Heller's The Believers reminded me of what she said.

The characters in this book are so unlikable, yet at the same time so completely entertaining, that I couldn't stop reading about them even though I really wouldn't want to know them personally. The family, the Litvinoffs, are rude, self-absorbed and totally dysfunctional. The shrewish mother, Audrey, enables the thirty-ish son in his continued drug addiction. The obese daughter, filled with self-hatred (compliments of her cold, overly critical mother), stays married to a controlling sycophant while engaging in an inexplicable affair with someone equally repellent.

Through it all the father, Joel, lies in a post-stroke vegetative state in a New York hospital, where he is visited by his African American mistress and their illegitimate son. Wait till you get to the scene where she and Audrey accidently arrive at the same time! It's like something on Jerry Springer (not that I ever watch that show).

Don't worry, I haven't given everything away. I am making this book sound like trash, but it really isn't it's very good. It's funny and interesting and unique. Heller has a knack for writing excellent books about unpleasant situations. Her book What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal is about an affair between a female teacher and a very young teenage boy. That was also a great read. Both these books are evidence that a good writer can turn off-putting material into a thought-provoking book.

Heller is brave to tackle these plots -- I admire her for it and enjoy the results.

Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.


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