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What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal: A Novel Paperback – June 1, 2004
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"Children of Blood and Bone"
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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.
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
I was also struck by the similarities of the teaching staff at the high school and the student body. The teaching pool is churned by resentment against authority, petty jealousy, and nasty rumors. Everyone will remember their own high school teachers and wince. The sweet, utterly ineffectual pottery teacher, the old battleaxe with a face of iron, the high-minded, self-aggrandizing principal all make appearances here.
Something else I didn't see mentioned here was the fact that this is about more than one age-inappropriate relationship. Sheba is married to a man twenty years her senior, and of course, Barbara, the woman obsessed with her, is the same age as her husband. Heller made me think a lot about how aribitrary our affections are, and the directions they take when perhaps when no "normal" objects to which to direct our feelings present themselves.
My only complaint was that it was not longer. Really. I would happily have read about Barbara's horrific loneliness and her character assassinations for another three hundred pages.