Zoe Heller’s books aren’t hard to read or pretentious or opaque, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy. What they are is deceptively complex, in the way they wrap a high-concept plot around extremely complicated characters. They’re also, to put it mildly, tart—sharp-witted, observant and not at all blithely accepting of human foibles. You don’t read Zoe Heller, in other words, to be coddled. You read her to understand and to laugh—at the world around you and, if you’re really good, at yourself.

The Zoe Heller I meet for lunch on a fall afternoon in New York City to talk about her latest book, The Believers (Harper), is much as you’d expect the author of Everything You Know (Knopf, 2000) and What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal (Holt, 2003) to be: hip, smart, straightforward almost to the point of rat-a-tat-tat, keenly observant and direct. Dressed in tight jeans, boots and a T-shirt, the tall, lanky Heller has a kind of loping purposefulness, whether ordering from the menu (“Yes, I do want something to eat,” she tells the waitress, “but I haven’t figured it out yet”) or discussing the school to which she is hoping to send her two young daughters when she and her family return to New York from their 18-month sojourn in the Bahamas. She has a kind of confidence and self-knowingness that many writers often exhibit only on the page.

She is also fiercely curious and intellectually perverse—in conversation and in The Believers, which is an examination (read: deeply intelligent send-up) of political correctness, activism and and many of the other social conventions of the post-’60s generation. The book centers on the family of Joel Litvinoff, a flamboyant, charismatic, activist lawyer whose sudden death reveals some rather conventional secrets—and, not incidentally, sends his family into personal and political chaos. There’s Lenny, the adopted son and secret drug addict; Carla, the unhappily married, weight-obsessed daughter; and Rosa, who has suddenly decided she wants to become a devout Jew. And, of course, there’s Joel’s widow, Audrey, a character as haughty and difficult as any in recent memory.

Never mind that some readers may assume that Audrey is at the heart of the book, Heller says it was actually Rosa who was the most interesting and difficult to write. By her own definition a “rational and sensible” person who “grew up with no religion whatsoever,” Heller became interested in examining the notion of religious faith—and Rosa was her vehicle. “My first thought was that I wanted to write about a family,” says the43-year-old journalist-turned-novelist who once worked as an assistant to Harper now-honcho Jonathan Burnham in London. “I was interested in seeing how children cope with their parents’ life choices; children with some kind of [intellectual] inheritance.” Originally, Heller says, she thought the Litvinoffs might be a theatrical family—perhaps like her own (her father was the screenwriter Lucas Heller, who wa responsible for The Dirty Dozen, among other famous films, and both her brother and her husband, Larry Konner, write movies). “And then, when I read a magazine article about scientists looking into the idea that there might be a gene that makes people credulous or skeptical, I thought I wanted to see what would happen if a person who had always been rational and sensible found religion.” At the same time, Heller says, she didn’t want to write a conventional religious satire, or, as she puts it, “a snooty, sneery, ‘tee-hee at religious idiots’—type of book.”

It’s clearly not easy to pierce piousness and expose poseurs without being the least bit knee-jerk, but that is exactly the trick Heller pulls off in The Believers. Just as she showed great humanity for Barbara, the older woman in What Was She Thinking (who was more of a one-note predator as portrayed by Judi Dench in the film version), so does she succeed in making the Litvinoffs understandable, if not terribly likable. She also, somehow, has an unerring ear for the Americanisms of the late 20th century, which is yet another accomplishment for a British-born writer, an “Englishwoman living in America; I’m in it, but not of it.” Having an American husband and American-born children helps, no doubt. So does having an American publisher, a fact that pleases Heller no end. “I want to be edited by Americans,” says the writer who has long been edited by Jennifer Barth. “There’s a fastidious editing alive here in a way that it’s not in England.”

Wait! Did she just say there’s more and better editing on this side of the Atlantic? But really, why was I surprised? Anybody who’s ever read or met Zoe Heller knows she has made a career out of bucking the common wisdom.

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Author photo © Jacques Brouchier