“What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] by Zoe Heller

What Was She Thinking [Notes on a Scandal] by Zoe Heller has been on my to-read-someday list for a while, but was recommended to me particularly by the Biblioracle at The Morning News based on the last five (non Tournament of Books) books I’d read, which were:

Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Life with Jeeves
The Road Cormac McCarthy
Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold
I Think I Love You by Alison Pearson

And for the third time, The Biblioracle made a good call; he’d previously recommended Gibson’s Pattern Recognition and Rachmann’s The Imperfectionists to me. I liked them both immensely

Since the novel was turned into an Oscar-award nominated film, you may know the basics. An English schoolteacher, Sheba Hart, falls into an affair with her 15-year-old student while a friendship develops with an older colleague, Barbara Covett. Barbara is the book’s sole narrator, and a powerful one she is. She’s been teaching school to middle/lower-class students for decades, and has a stoic resignation about it. Not for her the sunny platitudes about helping students realize their own potential. Barbara is smart, with razor-sharp observations that frequently decimate those around her in this narrative. No one, except perhaps sometimes herself, escapes her judgment.

I am presumptuous enough to believe that I am the person best qualified to write this small history. I would go so far as to hazard that I am the only person. Sheba and I have spent countless hours together over the last eighteen months, exchanging confidences of every kind. Certainly, there is no other friend or relative of Sheba’s who has been so intimately involved in the day-to-day business of her affair with Connolly. In many cases the events I describe here were witnessed by me personally. Elsewhere, I rely upon detailed accounts provided by Sheba herself. I am not so foolhardy as to claim for myself an infallible or complete version of the story. But I do believe that my narrative will go some substantial way to helping the public understand who Sheba Hart really is.

What’s especially fascinating is that Barbara, while an unreliable narrator, is not unsympathetic. By tearing off the gauzy veils of nicety and political correctness, she reveals an exhilarating honesty, vulnerability and sense of humor that no one around her has the least suspicion of. Heller skillfully portrays myriad complex characters through just one person’s point of view. What Barbara writes, and what she leaves out, tell a full and satisfying story. Even as it moves back and forward in time, it’s easy to follow, and tantalizing in how Barbara bestows the details a little at a time. An impressive feat of authorial control, I thought.

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