MELISSA BLOCK, host:
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Meghan Daum is the author of the recent book "Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House." For our series You Must Read This, where authors talk about a book they love, Daum picked a novel with a cast of liberal Manhattan do-gooders. She finds them as compelling as they are thoroughly unlikable.
Ms. MEGHAN DAUM (Author, "Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House"): Just about any writer who's had his or her work dissected in a writing workshop is familiar with the complaint: I simply don't like this character. What they mean is that unlikable characters make for unlikable books. I don't agree.
Case in point, Zoe Heller's novel "The Believers," it's infused with so much wit and intelligence that you don't care a bit that it's populated with some jaw-droppingly prickly people. At the center of this bitter goulash is the Litvinoff family.
There are three grown children - Rosa, Karla and Lenny - then there's the sour British expat mother, Audrey, and the father, Joel, a well-known radical lawyer in the William Kunstler mode.
Raised in a bubble of lefty intellectualism in Greenwich Village, they attended the little red schoolhouse. They also sat in rapt attention as their father expounded about Marxism over pancakes.
Now, the kids are struggling to find their own doctrines. Rosa, adrift after living in Cuba for four years, has become enamored of Orthodox Judaism. Karla, who's struggling with infertility and married to a humorless union organizer, finds solace in an unlikely sexual dalliance. Meanwhile, Lenny, whom the Litvinoffs adopted at seven in a rather self-congratulatory goodwill gesture, is a heroine addict.
The story revolves around Joel, the father. He spends most of the book unresponsive in a hospital bed following a stroke, but his presence, which is to say the residue of his ego, is felt on each page. Not least of all through Audrey, who despite being, like her husband, a proud atheist who had often held her rights, shaken her head ruefully at dowdy sanctity of life types, insists on keeping him alive through artificial means.
Along the way, she also discovers her husband has a long-time mistress with whom he fathered a child.
I could tell you more of the plot of "The Believers," but it's not what's best about this novel. For me, what's so exhilarating is Heller's ear, not just for her descriptions and dialogue, but for her tough, compassionate observations of human pettiness.
I love this exchange between Rosa and Karla after a visit to the apartment of their father's mistress: Did you take a look at her idiotic books? No, Karla lied. It was all how to read palms and diet books. Well, you don't love someone because of the books they read. Don't you?
The Litvinoffs aren't just a family; they're a symbol of earnest leftiness, of NPR listenership writ large, of downtown Manhattan as a locust of bohemian idealism. But even though this book is a satire, it's also tender about the ways these family members now find themselves profoundly unmoored.
Their solution, to search for ballast in the form of belief systems, to fill the hole left by Joel's imminent death with an equally doctrinaire, if ultimately less loving, set of gospels.
The result is a poignant, sometimes outrageous and very often hilarious novel about the courage and also the cowardice of standing by your convictions at all costs.
BLOCK: Meghan Daum is the author of "Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in that House." For more You Must Read This essays, reviews and author interviews, go to npr.org.
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