Zoe Heller

"What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal]"

(Reviewed by Jenny Dressel NOV 12, 2003)

When this book was published in Britain, the title to the novel was simply "Notes On A Scandal." As it crossed the Atlantic ocean, the name of this book, which was shortlisted for this year's Booker prize, became What was She Thinking? Notes On a Scandal. I don't know if Zoe Heller decided to change the name because of the pop culture phrase that I hear used in the states, but I DO know that throughout this entire tale, I just kept exclaiming "What was she thinking?" in my own mind. And the pronoun used in the sentence (and the title), "she" was referring to different characters and the author herself.

This novel centers around two women. Barbara Covett, the narrator of the story, has been a history teacher for thirty five years. She is unmarried and lives alone in her flat, with only her cat, Portia, for company. She has few friends, except for those acquaintances who are her fellow teachers, at St. George's, a high school outside of London.

Sheba Hart, the other character in this novel, is a 42 year old "rookie" pottery teacher. This is her first year teaching art, and she is thrilled with the opportunity to mold these young minds and enthusiastic about revealing the creativity in these youngsters. She is married to a college professor (her previous teacher) and has two children. Polly, a 17 year old girl who goes to boarding school, and Ben, an 11 year old with Downs Syndrome.

At the beginning of this novel, we find that the two teachers are living together, as Sheba has already been accused of having a "sexual affair" with a fifteen-year-old student, Steven Connolly. Barbara is taking care of Sheba, during the spring and summer of 1998, awaiting the trial.

Barbara has decided that she is going to transcribe the events leading up to, and including the trial, so as to set the story straight. She feels that insider's look at the situation is necessary. Barbara is extremely loyal to her friend, Sheba. Sheba has lost her job, lost her family and, lost her dignity. It is Barbara's feeling that she tell the story as she knows it, so that the media doesn't have the only insight. "Since it first came to light, Sheba's case received nigh on unstinting media coverage.Over the last fortnight, I must have spotted twenty errors of fact about Sheba's case, in the newspapers alone.In the end, though, it's not the carelessness, or even the cheerful mendacity, of the reporting that astounds so much as the sanctimony." Very early on, we realize that Barbara, due to her devotion to Sheba, is a narrator who is not reliable.

Barbara proceeds to backtrack in her narrative- giving us the details of Sheba's beginning of employment and the beginning of the women's friendship. Slowly, but surely, this becomes a tale of two deluded, narcissistic women, who foster and nurture their fantasies, as easily as two paranoid schizophrenics would.

Sheba is deluded in thinking her relationship with Steven Connolly was a great love affair-- two soul mates brought together by art. "'There was no assault and I've done nothing indecent', she likes to say."

Barbara, on the other hand, is deluded in thinking her relationship with Sheba, was critical. Barbara shows us exactly how obsessive this relationship has become to her. "It seems to me that if Sheba had made a wiser choice of girlfriend-- if she had chosen me over Sue from the start-- it is quite possible that she might have avoided the Connolly imbroglio."

When I started this book, I had assumed this novel would fictionalize one aspect of our society. I thought it would shed light on the teacher-student relationship, and the pitfalls. I thought I would gain some insight on the "Mary Kay Latourneau" incidents that seem to have infiltrated our psyches. I was wrong-- this novel is more of a character study of two unstable women.

When I finished this novel, I threw it on the table in disgust. I felt duped-- I wanted closure. I wanted to know that Sheba went to prison, and I wanted her to come to some reasoning-- I wanted her to admit that sleeping with a fifteen year old student was wrong. In addition, I wanted to know what happened to poor, lonely Barbara when her "ward" was taken out of the courtroom to serve her fate. But this didn't happen, and given some days to ponder, I realize that I made the mistake, not Ms. Heller.

Zoe Heller hasn't brought this story to the conclusion that I had hoped for, but she has at least, posed the questions. This novel is a MUST for book clubs, I think. The discussions that can stem from this novel run the gamut, from abusive teachers, to power-hungry friends, to sexually charged teenagers with little supervision. I propose you read this book for the questions that can spark conversations at the water cooler, and so that we may open our eyes, and see what can occur right beneath our noses.

However, I have to warn you-- if you want to understand where these characters were headed, and you like to see "growth" in characters, you'll probably come up with "What was she (Zoe Heller) thinking?"

  • Amazon readers rating: from 108 reviews

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About the Author:

Zoe HellerZoë Heller was born in London. Her work as a feature writer, critic, and columnist has appeared in The Independent on Sunday, The London Sunday Time, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The London Review of Books, Esquire, The New Republic, and The Times Literary Supplemen. She currently writes a weekly column for the London Telegraph, for which she won the 2002 British Press Award for Columnist of the Year. She has lived in New York since 1993.

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