The Litvinoff family is a dysfunctional bunch of socialist atheist political activists. Joel and Audrey play-act at a good marriage. Their daughter Rosa has given up the family values and is investigating Orthodox Judaism. Their daughter Karla is unhappy in her marriage and begins to fall in love with a coworker. Their adopted son Lenny is a drug addict constantly falling off the wagon. When Joel has a stroke, the family is thrown into even more discord than usual, which grows worse when a secret about Joel’s past comes to light.
I want to say first off that Zoë Heller knows how to write people. Wow. There are very few people in this book that I’d ever want to meet in real life. Most of the characters are disgusting, horrible, stuck-up, narrow-minded people, the epitome of things-Amanda-dislikes, and I know I’m not the only person who would say that. And yet…I never wanted to stop reading this book. Heller has the most beautiful prose, and she finds ways to make reading about these people interesting and almost sympathetic. She weaves in all their stories so that just when you don’t know if you can take any more, a soft moment comes to smooth things out.
The one exception to the awful character cast, for me, was Karla. I really loved Karla. She’s the daughter who never could quite get her parents’ attention, and she therefore spent her whole life trying to please. She’s the sort of person who looks trampled on when you meet her, the person who looks like she’s constantly cringing away from being hit by some invisible force. She gives in to everyone and has major self-esteem issues exacerbated by her mother’s constant nagging, particularly about her weight. No one has ever bothered to look at her and see who she really is. She admits some really profound and honest things in the course of this book, even as they are unflattering:
It was often assumed that Karla, being a fat person, had more forgiving aesthetic standards than other, slimmer people, but this was untrue. Years of attending to her own physical failings had made her, if anything, more closely attuned to the nuances of bodily imperfections than most. Her girlfriends, many of whom took guilty reassurance from the fact that they were Not-as-Fat-as-Karla, would have been shocked to discover how unsparing she was in her assessments of their figures.
Depression, in Karla’s experience, was a dull, inert thing – a toad that squatted wetly on your head until it finally gathered the energy to slither off. The unhappiness she had been living with for the last ten days was quite a different creature. It was frantic and aggressive. It had fists and fangs and hobnailed boots. It didn’t sit, it assailed. It hurt her.
She thought about the glowing goodwill she had felt toward her patients, toward strangers on the subway – toward even Mike – during the six weeks that she had been with Khaled. Never had she been filled with so much reckless magnanimity. It was one of the discomfiting paradoxes of her adultery: sin had made her a better person.
All the time I read Karla’s story, I just wanted to reach out and hug her, or shake her. I was just hoping and hoping her story would go in a certain direction, more towards finally breaking away from her chains rather than sacrificing herself for what’s supposedly right. I won’t say which direction it went, of course, but the journey was beautifully and realistically done. Her story is what really made the book for me.
I can’t say that I liked this book as much as Notes on a Scandal, but I can say that it was just as brilliantly written. Thank you again, Lena, for giving this one to me.
Performance: I listened to the first 235 pages of this one on audio, read by Andrea Martin. I honestly really disliked the performance. I didn’t like Martin’s interpretations of the characters, who seemed far more brash and disgusting in the audio. She stressed every swear word as if she didn’t think they’d be believable if she didn’t, even though the filthy language of some of the characters just seemed like part of their regular vocab and imo should have been read as such. There were also all the accents she did, which felt more stereotypical than real, and in some cases (Khaled for instance) downright incorrect. I’m not sure why I kept going as long as I did, but I finally gave it up and read the last 100 pages in print instead.