“The most gripping novel of the year. You leave this extraordinary book utterly shaken, with new knowledge of the human heart. Heller writes with a precision that stirs the blood and an uncommon insight into the darker sides of love.” —Nuala O’Faolain
What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandalby Zoe Heller
A lonely schoolteacher reveals more than she intends when she records the story of her best friend’s affair with a pupil in this sly, insightful novel
Schoolteacher Barbara Covett has led a solitary existence; aside from her cat, Portia, she has few friends and no intimates. When Sheba Hart joins St. George’s as the new art teacher, Barbara/b>
A lonely schoolteacher reveals more than she intends when she records the story of her best friend’s affair with a pupil in this sly, insightful novel
Schoolteacher Barbara Covett has led a solitary existence; aside from her cat, Portia, she has few friends and no intimates. When Sheba Hart joins St. George’s as the new art teacher, Barbara senses the possibility of a new friendship. It begins with lunches and continues with regular invitations to meals with Sheba’s seemingly close-knit family. But as Barbara and Sheba’s relationship develops, another does as well: Sheba has begun a passionate affair with an underage male student. When it comes to light and Sheba falls prey to the inevitable media circus, Barbara decides to write an account in her freind’s defense—an account that reveals not only Sheba’s secrets but her own.
What Was She Thinking? is a story of repression and passion, envy and complacence, friendship and loneliness. A complex psychological portrait framed as a wicked satire, it is by turns funny, poignant, and sinister. With it, Zoë Heller surpasses the promise of her critically acclaimed first novel, Everything You Know.
More than a decade ago, Kazuo Ishiguro wowed readers with The Remains of the Day, a novel requiring readers to see past the self-deceptions of an uppity English narrator to understand the true significance of the story. In the same vein, Zoë Heller offers a riveting story of friendship, jealousy, and betrayal, with a narrator as unreliable as Ishiguro's infamous butler.
Heller's narrator is Barbara Covett, a British schoolteacher who lives a quiet, solitary life with an aging cat as her sole companion. For reasons she cannot comprehend, Barbara has never been good at making friends. But she is drawn to Sheba, a pretty new pottery teacher, and jealously tries to edge out the other teachers to win Sheba's friendship. When Sheba begins an inappropriate relationship with a young male student, it is Barbara in whom she confides. Soon, Barbara begins a written account of Sheba's illicit affair, detailing the actions of a woman caught in the grip of an obsession larger than herself.
As Barbara continues to infiltrate Sheba's life, their friendship acquires a dangerous undercurrent. And although the book title ostensibly refers to Sheba, readers might ask themselves the same question of Barbara, as this psychologically rich, complex tale unfolds. In penning her wickedly wonderful second novel, Zoë Heller certainly had her head squarely on her shoulders. (Fall 2003 Selection)
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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- First Edition
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Read an Excerpt
What Was She Thinking?
The first time I ever saw Sheba was on a Monday morning, early in the winter term of 1996. I was standing in the St. George's car park, getting books out of the back of my car, when she came through the gates on a bicyclean old-fashioned, butcher-boy model with a basket in the front. Her hair was arranged in one of those artfully dishevelled up-dos: a lot of stray tendrils framing the jaw, and something like a chopstick piercing a rough bun at the back. It was the sort of hairstyle that film actresses wear when they're playing sexy lady doctors. I can't recall exactly what she had on. Sheba's outfits tend to be very complicatedlots of floaty layers. I know she was wearing purple shoes. And there was definitely a long skirt involved, because I remember thinking that it was in imminent danger of becoming entangled in her spokes. When she dismountedwith a lithe, rather irritating little skipI saw that the skirt was made of some diaphanous material. Fey was the word that swam into my mind. Fey person, I thought. Then I locked my car and walked away.
My formal introduction to Sheba took place later the same day when Ted Mawson, the deputy head, brought her into the staff room at afternoon break for a "meet and greet." Afternoonbreak is not a good time to meet schoolteachers. If you were to plot a graph of a teacher's spirits throughout the school day, afternoon break would be represented by the lowest valley. The air in the staff room has a trapped, stagnant quality. The chirpy claptrap of the early morning has died away, and those staff members who are not milling about, checking their timetables and so on, sprawl in lugubrious silence. (To be fair, the sprawling is as much a tribute to the shoddy construction of the staff room's three elderly foam sofas as an expression of the teachers' low morale.) Some of the teachers stare, slack-shouldered, into space. Some of them readthe arts and media pages of the liberal newspapers mainly, or paperback editions of the lower sort of fiction-the draw being not so much the content as the shield against having to converse with their colleagues. A great many chocolate bars and instant noodles in plastic pots are consumed.
On the day of Sheba's arrival, the staff room was slightly more crowded than usual, owing to the heating being on the blink in Old Hall. (In addition to its three modern structuresthe Gym, the Arts Centre, and the Science Blockthe St. George's site includes two rather decrepit redbrick buildings, Old Hall and Middle Hall, which date back to the school's original, Victorian incarnation as an orphanage.) That afternoon, several teachers who might otherwise have remained skulking in their Old Hall classrooms during break had been driven to seek refuge in the staff room, where the radiators were still operative. I was off in a far corner when Mawson ushered Sheba in, so I was able to watch their slow progress around the room for several minutes before having to mould my face into the appropriate smile.
Sheba's hair had become more chaotic since the morning. The loose tendrils had graduated to hanks and, where it was meant to be smooth and pulled back, tiny, fuzzy sprigs had reared up, creating a sort of corona around her scalp. She was a very thin woman, I saw now. As she bent to shake the hands of seated staff members, her body seemed to fold in half at the waist like a piece of paper. "Our new pottery teacher!" Mr. Mawson was bellowing with his customary chilling good spirits, as he and Sheba loomed over Antonia Robinson, one of our Eng. lit women. Sheba smiled and patted shyly at her hair.
Pottery. I repeated the word quietly to myself. It was too perfect : I pictured her, the dreamy maiden poised at her wheel, massaging tastefully mottled milk jugs into being.
She was gesturing at the windows. "Why are all the curtains drawn?" I heard her ask. Ted Mawson rubbed his hands, nervously.
"Oh," Antonia said, "so the kids can't look in at us and make faces."
Bill Rumer, the head of chemistry, who was sitting next to Antonia on one of the foam sofas, snorted loudly at this. "Actually, Antonia," he said, "it's so we can't look out at them. So they can smash each other updo their raping and pillagingand we're not required to intervene."
Antonia laughed and made a scandalised face.
A lot of teachers at St. George's go in for this sort of posturing cynicism about the pupils, but Bill is the chief offender. He is a rather ghastly character, I'm afraidthe sort of man who is always sitting with his legs aggressively akimbo, offering a clearer silhouette of his untidy crotch than is strictly decent. One of the more insufferable things about him is that heimagines himself tremendously naughty and shockinga delusion in which women like Antonia are all too eager to conspire.
"Oh, Bill," Antonia said now, pressing her skirt against her thighs.
"Don't worry," Bill said to Sheba, "you'll get used to the gloom." He smiled at her magnanimouslythe grandee allowing her into the little enclosure of his bonhomie. Then, as his eyes swept over her, I saw his smile waver for a moment.
Women observing other women tend to be engrossed by the detailsthe bodily minutiae, the clothing particulars. We get so caught up in the lone dimple, the excessive ears, the missing button, that we often lag behind men in organising the individual features into an overall impression. I mention this by way of explaining why it was only now, as I watched Bill, that the fact of Sheba's beauty occurred to me. Of course, I thought. She's very good looking. Sheba, who had been smiling fixedly throughout Bill and Antonia's droll exchange, made another nervous adjustment to her hair. As she raised her long, thin arms to fuss with the chopstick hair ornament, her torso lengthened and her chest was thrust forward slightly. She had a dancer's bosom. Two firm little patties riding the raft of her ribs. Bill's eyes widened. Antonia's eyes narrowed.
Sheba and Mawson continued on their journey around the room. The change that took place in the teachers' faces as they set eyes on Sheba confirmed my appraisal of Bill's appraisal. The men beamed and ogled. The women shrank slightly and turned sullen. The one exception was Elaine Clifford, a St. George's alumnus who teaches lower school biology. Assuming what is her characteristic stance of unearned intimacy, Elaine stood very close to Sheba and began to blast her with impudent chatter. They were only a few feet away from me now. After amoment, Mawson turned and beckoned to me. "Barbara!" he shouted, cutting off Elaine in midstream. "Do come and meet Sheba Hart."
I stepped over and joined the group.
"Sheba is going to be teaching pottery," Mawson said. "As you know, we've been waiting a long time to replace Mrs. Sipwitch. We feel tremendously lucky and pleased to have got her."
In response to these words, a small, precise circle of scarlet appeared on each of Sheba's cheeks.
"This is Barbara Covett," Mawson went on. "She's one of our stalwarts. If Barbara ever left us, I'm afraid St. George's would collapse."
Sheba looked at me carefully. She was about thirty-five, I estimated. (She was actually forty, about to be forty-one.) The hand that she held out to be shaken was large and red and somewhat coarse to the touch. "How nice to be so needed," she said, smiling. It was difficult to distinguish her tone, but it seemed to me that it contained a note of genuine sympathyas if she understood how maddening it might be to be patronised by Mawson.
"Shebais that as in Queen of?" I asked.
"No, as in Bathsheba."
"Oh. Were your parents thinking of the Bible or of Hardy?"
She smiled. "I'm not sure. I think they just liked the name."
"If there's anything you need to know about anything concerning this place, Sheba," Mawson continued, "you must ask Barbara. She's the St. George's expert."
"Oh, smashing. I'll remember that," Sheba said.
People from the privileged orders are always described as having plums in their mouths, but that wasn't what came to mind when I heard Sheba speak. On the contrary, she soundedas if her mouth were very empty and cleanas if she'd never had a filling.
"Oh! Love your earrings!" Elaine said now. She reached out, like a monkey, to finger Sheba's ears and, as she raised her arms, I caught a glimpse of her armpits, which were violently pink, as if inflamed, and speckled with black stubble. I do hate it when women don't keep their personal grooming up to scratch. Better the full, bushy Frenchwoman's growth than that squalid sprinkling of iron filings. "They're so pretty!" Elaine said of the earrings. "Where d'you get 'em?"
Sandy Pabblem, the headmaster, is very keen on having former pupils like Elaine on staff. He imagines it reflects well on the school that they should wish to return and "give something back." But the truth is, St. George's alumni make exceptionally poor teachers. It's not so much that they don't know anything about anything. (Which they don't.) Or even that they are complacent about their ignorance. (I once heard Elaine blithely identifying Boris Yeltsin as "the Russian one who doesn't have a thingy on his head.") The real issue is one of personality. Invariably, pupils who come back to teach at St. George's are emotionally suspect characterspeople who have surmised that the world out there is a frightening place and who have responded by simply staying put. They'll never have to try going home again because they're never going to leave. I have a vision sometimes of the pupils of these ex-pupils, deciding to become St. George's teachers themselvesand these ex-pupils of ex-pupils producing more ex-pupils, who return to St. George's as teachers, and so on. It would take only a couple of generations for the school to become entirely populated by dolts.
I took the opportunity, while Sheba was explaining her jewellery, to examine her face more closely. The earrings were beautiful,as it happened: delicate little things made of gold and seed pearls. Her face was longish and thin, her nose ever so slightly crooked at the tip. And her eyesno, not so much the eyes as the eyelidswere prodigious: great beige canopies fringed with dense lash. Like that spiky tiara that the Statue of Liberty wears.
"This is Sheba's first teaching post," Ted said, when Elaine had stopped talking for a moment.
"Well, it'll certainly be a baptism by fire," I remarked.
Ted laughed with excessive heartiness and then abruptly stopped. "Okay," he said, glancing at his watch, "we ought to get on, Sheba. Let me introduce you to Malcolm Plummer ..."
Elaine and I stood watching for a moment, as Sheba and Mawson moved off. "She's sweet, isn't she?" Elaine said.
I smiled. "No, I wouldn't have said sweet."
Elaine made a clicking noise with her tongue to indicate her affront. "Well, I think she's nice," she muttered.
During her first couple of weeks at school, Sheba kept very much to herself. At break times, she often stayed in her pottery studio. When she did come into the staff room, she usually stood alone at one of the windows, peeking round the curtains at the playground outside. She was perfectly pleasant to her colleagues, which is to say she exchanged all the standard, weatherbased pleasantries. But she did not automatically gravitate to another female teacher and start swapping autobiographies. Or put her name down to join the St. George's contingent on the next march against government spending cuts. Or contribute to sarcastic group discussions about the headmaster. Her resistance to all the usual initiation rituals aroused a certain amount of suspicion among the other teachers. The women tended to the opinion that Sheba was "stuck up," while the men favouredthe theory that she was "cold." Bill Rumer, widely acknowledged as the staff expert on such matters, observed on more than one occasion that "there was nothing wrong with her that a good boning wouldn't cure."
I took Sheba's failure to forge an instantaneous friendship as an encouraging sign. In my experience, newcomersparticularly female onesare far too eager to pin their colours to the mast of any staff room coterie that will have them. Jennifer Dodd, who used to be my closest friend at the school, spent her first three weeks at St. George's buried in the welcoming bosoms of Mary Horsely and Diane Nebbins. Mary and Diane are two hippies from the maths department. They both carry packets of "women's tea" in their handbags and use jagged lumps of rock crystal in lieu of antiperspirant. They were entirely ill-suitedtemperament-wise, humour-wise, worldview-wiseto be Jennifer's friends. But they happened to get to her first, and Jennifer was so grateful for someone being nice to her that she cheerfully undertook to ignore their soy milk mumbo jumbo. I daresay she would have plighted her troth to a Moonie during her first week at St. George's, if the Moonie had been quick enough off the mark.
Sheba displayed no such new girl jitters and, for this, I admired her. She did not exempt me from her general aloofness. Owing to my seniority at St. George's and the fact that I am more formal in manner than most of my colleagues, I am used to being treated with a certain deference. But Sheba seemed to be oblivious of my status. There was little indication, for a long time, that she really saw me at all. Yet, in spite of this, I found myself possessed by a strange certainty that we would one day be friends.
Early on, we made a few tentative approaches to one another. Somewhere in her second week, Sheba greeted me in the corridor. (She used "Hello," I was pleased to note, as opposed to the awful, Mid-Atlantic "Hiya" that so many of the staff favour.) And another time, walking from the Arts Centre after an assembly, we shared some brief, rueful comments about the choral performance that had just taken place. My feelings of connection to Sheba did not depend upon these minute exchanges, however. The bond that I sensed, even at that stage, went far beyond anything that might have been expressed in quotidian chitchat. It was an intuited kinship. An unspoken understanding. Does it sound too dramatic to call it spiritual recognition? Owing to our mutual reserve, I understood that it would take time for us to form a friendship. But when we did, I had no doubt that it would prove to be one of uncommon intimacy and trusta relationship de chaleur, as the French say.
In the meantime, I watched from afar and listened with interest to the gossip that circulated about her in the staff room. For most of the staff, Sheba's dignified self-containment acted as a sort of force field, repelling the usual impertinent enquiries about home life and political allegiance. But elegance loses its power in the presence of the properly stupid, and there were a few who were not deterred. From time to time, I would spot certain staff members zooming in on Sheba in the car park or playground, stunning her into submission with their vulgar curiosity. They never achieved the immediate intimacy that they were seeking. But they usually managed to extract some piece of information as a consolation prize. It was from these eager little fishwives that the rest of the staff room learned that Sheba was married with two children; that her husband was alecturer; that her children were educated privately; that she lived in "a ginormous house" in Highgate.
Inevitably, given the quality of the intermediaries, much of this information arrived in somewhat scrambled form. On one occasion I overheard Theresa Shreve, who teaches educational guidance, informing Marian Simmons, head of the sixth year, that Sheba's father was famous. "Yeah," she said. "He's, like, dead now. But he was a very important academic." Marian asked what discipline he had worked in.
"What?" Theresa said.
"What was his academic subject?" Marian clarified.
"Ooh, do you know, I don't know!" Theresa said. "He was called Donald Taylor and he invented the word inflation, I think."
Thus did one gather that Sheba's father was Ronald Taylor, the Cambridge economist, who had died five years before, shortly after turning down an OBE. (His official reason had been that he didn't agree with the honours system, but the newspapers speculated that he was offended at not having received a knighthood.)
"I think you'll find, Theresa," I interrupted at this point, "that Mrs. Hart's father's name was Ronald. He didn't 'invent inflation' as you say. He devised an important theory about the relationship between inflation and consumer expectation."
Theresa looked at me with the sullen expression that so many people of her generation wear when one attempts to assail their ignorance. "Uh-huh," she said.
The other thing that became known in those early weeks was that Sheba was experiencing "class control issues." This was not entirely unexpected. Because Highgate is part of its catchment area, people often assume that St. George's is one of those safe, soft comprehensives, full of posh children toting their cellos toorchestra practise. But posh parents don't surrender their offspring to St. George's. The cello players get sent to St. Botolph's Girls or King Henry's Boys, or to private schools in other parts of London. St. George's is the holding pen for Archway's pubescent prolesthe children of the council estates who must fidget and scrap here for a minimum of five years until they can embrace their fates as plumbers and shop assistants. Last year, we had 240 pupils sit their GCSEs, and exactly six of them achieved anything higher than a grade E pass. The school representshow to put it?a very volatile environment. Attacks on the staff are not uncommon. The year before Sheba arrived, three second-year boys, leaning out of one of the science lab windows, pelted the school secretary, Dierdre Rickman, with Bunsen burners. (Her resulting injuries included a fractured clavicle and a head wound requiring fourteen stitches.)
The boys naturally present the worst problems. But the girls are no picnic either. They're not quite as disposed to violence, but they are just as foulmouthed and they possess a superior gift for insult. Not long ago, a girl in my third-year classan angry little virago-in-training by the name of Denise Callaghancalled me, without any apparent forethought, "a chewy-faced old bitch." This sort of thing occurs very rarely in my classroom, and when it does, I am able, in almost every case, to stamp it out immediately. But for more junior members of the St. George's staff, maintaining basic order is an ongoing and frequently bloody battle. For a novice like Shebaa wispy novice with a tinkly accent and see-through skirtsthe potential for disaster was great.
Later on, I learned the details of what happened in Sheba's first class. She had been put in what is grandly called the school studioa prefabricated hut adjoining the Arts Centre, which,for some years, since the departure of the last pottery teacher, had been used as a storage room. It was rather dark and musty, but Sheba had made an effort to cheer the place up with museum posters and some geranium cuttings taken from her garden that morning.
She had worked very conscientiously on her lesson plan. Her intention was to begin her first class of third-years with a short talk about what pottery wasthe primal, creative impulse that it represented and the important role that it played in the earliest civilisations. After that, she was going to let the children handle some clay. She would ask them to construct a bowlany sort of bowl they likedand whatever they managed to produce she would fire in the kiln, in time for the next class. When the bell rang for first period and her pupils began trickling in, her mood was bordering on elation. This, she had decided, was going to be great fun.
She waited until she judged that most of the class was present before standing up to say hello. But as she was introducing herself she was interrupted by Michael Bealea wiry boy with a sinister, grey front toothwho rushed towards her from the back of the class, shouting, "I fancy you, Miss!" She chuckled gamely and asked him to take a seat. He ignored her and remained standing. Shortly thereafter, another boy joined him. Having looked Sheba up and down, this ladit was James Thornham, I thinkannounced to the class, in a sardonic monotone, that their teacher had "little tits." Even as the class was showing its appreciation for this witty observation, yet another boy stood up on one of the worktables and began chanting, "Show us your tits." Apparently this met with a derisive response from some of the female class members, who called upon theboy in question to "show his willy" and made offers of a magnifying glass for the purpose.
Sheba was having to hold back her tears by this stage. She sternly enjoined the class to settle down, and for a moment, to her surprise, there was semi-quiet. She was starting to introduce herself again when a girl of Southeast Asian parentage, whom Sheba had identified as one of the more demure and well-behaved pupils, leaned back in her chair and shouted, "Oi! Miss is wearing a see-through skirt. You can practically see her knickers!" The entire class broke out in cheers. "Miss, how come you're not wearing a slip? ... Come on, Miss, show us your tits ... . Miss, Miss, where d'you get that skirt? Oxfam?" Sheba did begin to cry now. "Please," she kept shouting above the din. "Please. Would you please stop being so beastly for a minute?"
At the time, I was aware of none of these particulars. But I received a general idea of Sheba's troubles from the gleeful staff room hearsay. The word on Sheba was that she was a short fuse type. An exploder. One lunchtime, a fortnight into term, I overheard Elaine Clifford describing what one of her second-years had told her about Sheba. "The kids go wild on her apparently," Elaine said. "She, like, begs them to be good. And then the next thing, she loses her rag. Curses at them. Bloody this and F that. All sorts."
This worried me a good deal. The head tends to be pretty soft on cursing. But, strictly speaking, uttering expletives in the presence of the children is a sackable offence. It is not so uncommon for teachersparticularly inexperienced onesto start out negotiating with unruly pupils and then, when that approach fails, to resort abruptly to anger. But, in most cases,these transitions have an element of calculated or affected ferocity. The teacher is performing rage. If children see someone like Sheba truly losing controlshouting, swearing, and so forththey are delighted. They sense, not incorrectly, that a victory has been won. I wanted very much to take Sheba aside and tell her, tactfully, where she was going wrong. But I was shy. I didn't know how to broach the matter without seeming like a busybody. So I kept my own counsel and waited.
In Sheba's third week at the school, a geography teacher called Jerry Samuels was patrolling the property for truants when he passed the Arts Centre and heard what sounded like a riot inside Sheba's hut. When he went in to investigate, he found the studio in uproar. The entire second-year class was having a clay fight. Several of the boys were stripped to the waist. Two of them were endeavouring to topple the kiln. Samuels discovered Sheba cowering, tearfully, behind her desk. "In ten years of teaching, I've never seen anything like it," he later told the staff room. "It was Lord of the Flies in there."
WHAT WAS SHE THINKING. Copyright © 2003 by Zoë Heller. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.
Meet the Author
Zoë Heller was born in London. Her work as a feature writer, critic, and columnist has appeared in The Independent on Sunday, The London Sunday Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The London Review of Books, Esquire, The New Republic, and The Times Literary Supplement. She currently writes a weekly column for the London Telegraph, for which she won the 2002 British Press Award for Columnist of the Year. She has lived in New York since 1993.
- New York, New York
- Date of Birth:
- July 7, 1965
- Place of Birth:
- London, England
- B.A., St. Anne's College, Oxford, 1987; M.A., Columbia University 1988
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