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

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

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in trade), 258 pages, 2003

Rating: 10/10

Reason for Reading: Shortlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize.

Synopsis: Sheba Hart, a 42-year-old school teacher, has been in the news lately – for her affair with a fifteen-year-old student. Her friend, Barbara Covett, narrates the story of Sheba’s love, betrayal, and the crushing effect on her family, as well as her own life, including why she would possibly defend a ‘child molester.’

Why you should read this book: The writing, and the way this delicate topic is handled in this novel is absolutely stunning. Every thought and emotion is brilliantly expressed – you may not love Sheba, but it’s hard to hate her as everything feels so honestly written, through both the highs and the lows. Besides looking at obsessive love, the intricacies of friendship are also well covered and intriguing. It’s well-written while being compellingly readable, unlike some of the more pretentious Booker nominees of 2003.

Why you should avoid this book: Don’t. If there’s one book you have to read in 2003, it’s this one.

Opening paragraph:

The other night, at dinner, Sheba talked about the first time that she and the Connolly boy kissed. I had heard most of it before of course – there being few aspects of the Connolly business that Sheba has not described to me several times over. But this time round, something new came up. I happened to ask her if anything about the first embrace had surprised her. She laughed. Yes, the smell of the whole thing had been surprising, she said. She hadn’t anticipated his personal odor, and if she had, she would probably guessed at something teenagey: bubble gum, cola, feet.

Fabulous quotes:

Sheba was tickled by this episode. It was a novelty, she says, to be so candidly admired. When she first told me this, I remember expressing some incredulity. I could believe that Richard’s affection might have grown complacent over the years, or perhaps just so reliable as not to count. But surely she wasn’t suggesting that she was lacking admirers before Connolly? Sheba, who made the men in St. George’s staff room gaga with her flimsy blouses. No, she insisted. That was quite different. There had always been men who made furtive google eyes at her, men who made it clear that they found her attractive. But no one, before Connolly, had ever truly pursued her. She used to think it was out of respect for her having a husband. But it had to have been something else. If everybody was so reverent of the institution of marriage, how did all the adultery get committed?

Sheba says I couldn’t possibly understand what it feels like, after twenty years of faithful marriage, to be kissed by someone other than your husband; to feel the pressure of a stranger’s mouth on yours. ‘Things fall asleep in a marriage,’ she told me once. ‘They have to. You have to lose that mad sexual alertness you had when you were out in the world on your own. All these years with Richard, I don’t think I’ve ever consciously suppressed anything. I’ve always been so grateful to be married – so relieved that I would never have to be naked in front of a stranger again. But I’d forgotten how exhilarating it is to expose yourself – to be a little scared. As soon as Stephen kissed me, it all came back in an instant. The, you know, high of it. I was amazed at how I could have lived without that for so long.’

Also recommended: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson; Atonement by Ian McEwan; Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee.

Also by this author: Everything You Know.

Awards: Man Booker Prize: shortlist, 2003.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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