Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Find(?) of the Week: Zoë Heller

I agonized over whether Zoë Heller could qualify as a Find of the Week, and then proceeded through an existential crisis over what a Find of the Week really means (no, I didn't - I found a rationalization, like any good attorney-in-training).  She seems famous to me, but this morning in a book closet at a publisher in New York, I spotted a reissue copy of The Believers and realized that many an author, even if his or her work is shortlisted for prizes and adapted as film, might slip past even avid readers, especially when their last major release lies a few years in the past.  So a lot of you will have heard of Ms. Heller, especially in the UK.  For those of you that haven't, here's your introduction to a novelist who can lay out intense and often emotional character studies that manage to move forward without getting bogged down in too many monologues, tense dinner table scenes or pages-long solitary epiphanies while the subject stands or sits on a roof or hill thinking of how small and unimportant everything appears below. 

Just like Niccolò Ammaniti, Heller has had three novels published in the US so far, and I read them out of order and now plan to pitch them against each other.  They're each entirely distinct in premise.  I first read Notes on a Scandal: What Was She Thinking? when I heard about a well-crafted film (absent subtitle) starring two of the world's finest actresses, Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.  Few authors can create this level suspense in the absence of murder.  It helps that Heller's hypervigilant narrator Barbara Covett, hovering at the edge of a shocking sexual scandal, manages to toe the line between pathetic or desperate and threatening.  Barbara's new friend and colleague at St. George's School, art teacher Sheba Hart, becomes an object of obsession and longing - young, brash, and beautiful, Sheba provides older Barbara a window into her long-lost youth and potential. When she uses her youth to seduce a student, Heller uses the tension between the two women to complicate the impact of what could have been a plainly saucy story.  In short, the novel takes a subject we see on tabloids on both sides of the pond, and through creative use of point of view, makes sex and scandal into thoughtful and suspenseful fiction. 

The Believers opens up to a wider and more glittery scale:  A famous family in New York playing out their difficulties and misunderstandings through the prism of money, politics and religion. It opens in London, when the central couple meet in 1962, and continues on in Modern-Day New York.  Joel, patriarch of the Litvinoff family, has by now made a name for himself as a lawyer supporting radical and socialist causes.  Audrey, his wife, discovers a secret one day and is suddenly forced to look at the real meaning of the four decades she has spent with Joel.  Their family, two biological daughters and an adopted son named Lenny, struggle with their own needs, desires and demons, all under the shadow of prominent and eminently screwed-up parents.  There are times in The Believers where, for lack of a better phrase, it's tough to believe the characters, the variety and the blended style of raising children.  It's almost too perfect, the way the parents have never left their own causes from the sixties, and how the variety of children diverge widely in the way they live their lives.  This setup doesn't take away, however, from the likability of the characters themselves, and Heller's by now pitch-perfect sense of when to move the story forward or when to follow one character rather than another.  The Believers is much like a politicized, and more intense, A Spot of Bother; but instead of sneaking in, the big issues - how a family evolves, the clashing causes they each believe in - take center stage.  Leave it to the careful Heller, who saved us from tabloid fodder in Notes, to keep Believers from being weighed down by the ideas its characters (not the book itself) want to explore.

Heller's freshman effort, Everything You Know, shows what would happen if she'd never learned to dial back some of her baser instincts: unbelievable pairings, absurd situations and characters too wrapped up in their own drama.  The choice of protagonist alone takes getting used to:  Willy, a curmudgeonly writer, follows up a health crisis by reading through his daughter's journals, the only connection left months after her suicide.  Willy and the type-ridden supporting cast has a lot of implausible and deeply personal emotional ground to travel.  When I say "deeply personal" I use it in the "potentially boring," sense, and good chunks the novel are boring.  The degree of implausibility lies behind these events leads me, reluctantly, to label this as a first novel of little value to readers now that Heller has found her voice.  It's out of print in the US, but the link on the title will take you to the Powell's website, where you can pick up a UK copy.  Often, as with Mr. Yates, the first novel will be a pinnacle; luckily for us, Ms. Heller seems to find even more skill and voice with each story she tells us.


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