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What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal: A Novel Paperback – June 1, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Heller's 2003 novel earned tremendous acclaim, including a spot on the shortlist for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. The audio release coincides with the 2007 film adaptation, Notes on a Scandal, starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench. Sheba Hart-a beautiful and charming bohemian high school art teacher in her early 40s-places her family, career and social status in grave jeopardy through a sexual relationship with 15-year-old Steven Connolly. Sheba's dowdy colleague and confidant Barbara Covett recounts the story from a deliciously twisted perspective steeped in obsession and jealousy. Veteran narrator Nadia May brings nuance to Barbara's voice. The layered structure of the tale itself-a lonely spinster relating the details of a steamy intergenerational love affair secondhand-presents a challenge for the audio format, but one that May meets with finesse. Listeners wanting to cut to the chase and escape into a garden-variety sexual thriller may grow impatient, but those with an appreciation for character-driven drama will not be disappointed. Simultaneous release with the Picador paperback (Reviews, May 26, 2003).
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
From The New Yorker
Barbara Covett, a sixtyish history teacher, is the kind of unmarried-woman-with-cat whose female friends sooner or later decide she is "too intense." Thus when a beautiful new pottery teacher, Sheba Hart—a "wispy novice with a tinkly accent and see-through skirts"—chooses Barbara as a confidante, she is deeply, even rather sinisterly, gratified. Sheba's secret is explosive: married with two kids, she is having an affair with a fifteen-year-old student. The novel, Heller's second, is Barbara's supposedly objective "history" of the affair and its eventual discovery, written furtively while she and her friend are holed up in a borrowed house, waiting for Sheba's court date. Barbara has appointed herself Sheba's "unofficial guardian," protecting her from the salivating tabloids. Equally adroit at satire and at psychological suspense, Heller charts the course of a predatory friendship and demonstrates the lengths to which some people go for human company.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
For those looking for salacious sexual content; this is NOT the book for you. In the first few pages the reader is almost promised all the lurid details of an eight-month affair, but you will have to look very hard to find any “good stuff.”
What the reader will find is some excellent writing in the way of character development. Barbara, the narrator, is a fascinating character. More and more of her character is revealed as the book moves on. The novel is in the form of Barbara’s notes on the scandal once Sheba has been caught. Barbara wants to make notes on her relationship with Sheba from the time she first met the new teacher until the “present” time, when she is still taking care of Sheba in the house of Sheba’s mom. While Barbara’s focus is on Sheba and student lover Connolly; Barbara also writes of her own relationship with headmaster Pabblem, former best friend Jennifer, and Sue Hodge. It seems Barbara is quite jealous of Sue because Sheba’s first close friend was Sue, not Barbara.
Barbara also is involved with Sheba’s family, husband Richard, daughter Polly, and son Ben. Barbara does not have a high opinion of many. She thinks Richard is pretentious and does not deserve Sheba. She thinks Polly is disrespectful and disdainful of Sheba (a correct viewpoint). She does not have bad things to say about Ben, but Ben has Down’s syndrome.
Sheba is an upper class lady trying to make a difference in sharing enlightenment with the lower class rough crowd of students at her school. Connolly is a student who sees an opportunity for sex. Sheba does not start out with the idea of sex with a student. She looks at Connolly’s early attempts at starting a relationship as cute. She rationalizes her responses as polite; she does not want to stunt his social growth by an outright rebuff. Then she becomes intrigued. Then she responds with more enthusiasm, then she gets caught.
After she gets caught, daughter Polly will not talk to her, husband Richard throws her out of the house and allows only limited visitation with Ben. Sheba loses her job. Barbara loses her job, ousted by the headmaster she never liked, but she was ready to retire anyway. Sheba moves into a house owned by her brother Eddie, who is away in another country for an extended period of time. Barbara moves in with her for emotional support; she also begins making notes (this novel).
There is a surprise, not to be revealed here. How did she get caught? Did someone see Sheba and Connoly together? Who informed?
But the surprise takes backstage to the examination of Barbara’s life (as explained by Barbara). And the answer to the unasked question of why Barbara, really quite a snob, is taking care of Sheba, remains unanswered.
Usually in stories like this we’re given the perspective of the wrongdoer - and even in that case it’s difficult to trust that we’re getting all the facts, since often that individual is deluded. In this case, we get Barbara’s re-telling of Sheba’s story, which makes it all the more unreliable. We can’t help but wonder what Barbara’s real motive is.
Inevitably, over the course of the book we learn more about Barbara than Sheba. What kind of person befriends and protects someone like Sheba? What’s Barbara’s deal?
An uncomfortable read, for sure - and chock full of literary prose that deliver subtle yet creepy insights into these two characters. I only wish Heller had been a little less ambiguous about some of Barbara’s own secrets.
The book is so well written that readers actually believe Barbara early on. She is simply writing "notes" on "a scandal" that occurred at her school, right? And she wants to protect her best friend and fellow teacher, Sheba, by documenting how Sheba got involved with a teenage student, right? False and more false! It's not until later in the book, though, that we realize that Barbara is an unreliable narrator----that's why I wish I had read the book before I had watched the movie. All these "notes" are actually Barbara's way of documenting her so-called relationship / obsession with Sheba.
I think Barbara actually feels betrayed that Sheba chose a young man over her. Barbara's fixation on Sheba is so over the top, but she justifies it in the book and in the movie because she's "lonely." Please. Get another cat, crazy lady! Volunteer somewhere! Just. Get. Away. If you've ever known someone with an unhealthy fixation on YOU, you will find Barbara Covett as creepy as I did.
That being said, the novel (and in turn my review) do nothing at all to refute the unflattering societal stereotype of the old / educated / lonely / spinster-teacher with cats. Other reviewers sympathize with Barbara and found passages about her solitary life touching. Not me. Her desire to attach herself to Sheba seems so obsessive that I think it makes Sheba's equally obsessive affair with the underage Steven who-smells-like-fresh-laundry Connelly seem almost acceptable. Both are May-December romances. And both relationships would be great to discuss in a readers' group, I think.
Judi Dench plays Barbara Covett (to the hilt) in the film; Kate Blanchett plays the posh pottery teacher, Sheba. And now I want to read MORE books by Zoe Heller. --Rhonda Filipan