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What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal: A Novel Hardcover – August 1, 2003

4.2 out of 5 stars 188 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Subtitled Notes on a Scandal, Heller's engrossing second novel (after Everything You Know) is actually the story of two inappropriate obsessions-one a consummated affair between a high school teacher and her student, the other a secret passion harbored by a dowdy spinster. Sheba Hart, a new 40ish art teacher at a London school for working-class kids, has been arrested for having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old student, Steven Connolly. The papers are having a blast. Sheba is herself the object of fascination for her older colleague and defender, Barbara Covett, whose interest in Sheba is not overtly romantic but has an erotic-and at times malevolent-intensity. Barbara narrates the story of Sheba's affair while inadvertently revealing her own obsession and her pivotal role in the scandal. The novel is gripping from start to finish; Heller brings vivid, nuanced characterizations to the racy story. Sheba is upper-class, arty, carelessly beautiful in floaty layers of clothing, with a full life of her own: doting older husband, impossible adolescent daughter, a son with Down's Syndrome, real if underdeveloped talent as a potter. She never got a driver's license, she tells Barbara, because she is always given rides; people want to do things for her. Barbara's respectable maiden-lady exterior hides a bitter soul that feasts on others' real and imagined shortcomings: one colleague's carelessly shaved armpits, another's risible baseball jacket. Even characters on stage for a minute (a Camden barman who hams it up for Barbara) live and breathe.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1st edition (August 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805073337
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805073331
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.9 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (188 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #234,787 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This intense and masterfully written novel by Zoe Heller introduces one of the most captivating and intriguing characters of the decade as it tells its sordid and juicy tale of illicit love and the scandal that ensues.

Barbara Covett is a single and painfully lonely teacher in her 60s, who has very few friends and prefers to keep mostly to herself. When the lower-class school that she works at welcomes Sheba Hart; a carefree, attractive and popular new art teacher; Barbara senses that a friendship will develop between them, although she quickly becomes skeptical of that occuring. However, as their association begins to develop from friends to confidantes, Barbara learns of a relationship that has come about between Sheba and a 15 year old student-a secret that could potentially sink Sheba.

Heller's novel, written as Barbara's retrospective diary entries on the situation, provides an incredible depth of character insight into both Barbara's lonely, attention depraved existance and Sheba's unthinkable affair. There is never a dull moment, as Barbara's diary slowly unveils the ups and downs of the relationship and the scandal that it creates, with Barbara's startling honesty and well composed thoughts on the circumstances and the other characters making for a compelling, fascinating and highly entertaining read. The handful of periferal characters also help to propel the story forward in a manner that is interesting and thought-provoking.

Zoe Heller's brilliant novel is without a doubt one of the best of the new century, providing greater character depth than most authors can. I strongly recommend that you read this masterpiece before seeing the film!
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Format: Hardcover
Craving something different, I picked up Zoe Heller's What Was She Thinking? with utmost anticipation. The synopsis had promised a dark, lurid tale of love, friendship and obsession. This is one of the most gripping novels I've read in quite some time.
Barbara Covett, a sixty-year-old schoolteacher and notorious spinster, has lived a rather monotonous existence. That is until she meets Sheba Hart. Sheba's slight eccentricities intrigue Barbara. A friendship ensues, but things take a disarming turn when Sheba confesses to having an affair with one of her fifteen-year-old students. A forty-two-year-old married woman, Sheba has a lot to lose if word gets out about the affair. Barbara becomes her confidante, but her intentions are rather sinister...
As mentioned earlier, What Was She Thinking? is an engrossing and gripping tale of love, friendship and obsession. The novel's structure and storytelling is rather different from the books I've read recently - and that's a good thing. I couldn't put this down. The darkness of the novel enthralled me from the first paragraph. Zoe Heller is a talented English author who has made her mark in contemporary literature. Her style is rather similar to Margot Livesey's, one of my favorite authors. Highly recommended...
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Format: Paperback
In this story with a first-person narrator (Barbara) recounting the scandal her friend (Sheba) has gotten herself into, I disagree with the reviewers who accepted the narrator's point of view at face value. I think Barbara's account of the scandal is deeply unreliable, even when she reports her own messy part in the story. But that's one of the exciting factors in reading this swiftly moving story, trying to figure out what actually happened versus Barbara's narrative of what happened. As for the very open-ended last page, it may be frustrating for those who like their ends all neatly tied up (and it's quite different from the movie), but it does leave the reader wondering whether Barbara really has everything as under control as she thinks she does.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
*PLEASE NOTE - THIS IS A REVIEW FOR NOTES ON A SCANDAL by Zoe Heller. For some reason this review (after 11 years) got also placed under Joseph Heller's book, Something Happened. I contacted Amazon and they said that they cannot fix this so apologies.

Brief summary (of Notes on a Scandal) and review, no spoilers.

Barbara Covett is a 60ish spinster school teacher, opinionated, intelligent and very lonely. She becomes good friends with Sheba Hart, a beautiful, popular 42 year old new teacher who has just arrived at Barbara's school. The novel is told from the point-of-view of Barbara, as she befriends Sheba and discovers that Sheba may be having an affair with one of Sheba's young students.

When I heard about the plot of this book, I have to admit I wasn't all that interested in reading it. But I picked up the book and read the first page and found it utterly compelling and an engrossing and intelligent read.

Part of the brilliance of this novel is the way you learn about both characters by listening to the narrator, the aptly named Barbara Covett. All is not what it seems and the author does a wonderful job making these characters very real people. Heller does a wonderful job showing how single women relate to those married with children and how people deal with loneliness and routine. She also shows how we make rationalizations about ourselves and our actions in order to justify our beliefs that we are good, honorable people.

I highly recommend this novel for any book clubs. It would make for a great discussion,and I think that everyone is going to have a different opinion about each of these two women. Not only is this novel an intelligent read, but it's a fun one also. This book is a page-turner that leaves you thinking about it and wanting to talk about it with your friends..what more can you ask for?
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