Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
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)
In the end, What Was She Thinking? isn't so much about the standard student-teacher affair as it is about the complicated weights and balances of female friendships. Some of the novel's funniest scenes show the women adopting a posture of honesty and ''supportiveness'' while privately judging or dismissing one another. It's a recognizable snit-fit of ''enough about you, what about me'' that pushes Barbara into her final betrayal. In a way, Barbara risks more for friendship than Sheba does for romance. The plot twist may not be a huge surprise, but Heller handles it with wry grace, managing to mock her characters without allowing their story to tip into farce.
What Was She Thinking? is a tartly readable portrait of terminal neediness, as sharp and merciless as any of Zoë Heller's columns.
In literature as in life, one of the most dangerous turns of events is to get what you want, and for all its surface tawdriness and chatty asides, What Was She Thinking? achieves some worthy literary aims indeed. Chris Lehmann
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.
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. Author tour. (Aug.) Forecast: Some readers will pass this up as yet another take on the shopworn theme of student/teacher romance, but Heller's light touch will win over others and please reviewers. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Spinster schoolteacher Barbara Covett lives a somewhat lonely life (although that's not how she would describe it). She disdains her fellow teachers at St. George's, and her closest companion is her cat, Portia. When the bohemianly attractive Sheba Hart arrives at school as the new art instructor, Barbara strikes up a friendship with her, thereby becoming the only person who knows that Sheba is having an affair with a young student. But somehow the news is leaked to the school administration, and Sheba becomes the focus of a media avid for scandal. Anxious to protect Sheba and to run interference with her husband and children, Barbara persuades Sheba to move in with her and begins secretly writing a defense of her friend's behavior-the book we're reading-which inadvertently reveals more about Barbara than Sheba. Heller's (Everything You Know) first-person narrator seems totally self-deluded. Or is she? Are Barbara's motives saintly or sinister? This deliciously subtle novel about obsession, love, and (possibly) friendship belongs on most public library fiction shelves. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/03.]-Nancy Pearl, Washington Ctr. for the Book, Seattle Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
After Everything You Know (2000) comes the tale of a London art teacher, married with children, who has an affair with a student of 15. When Sheba (Bathsheba) Hart comes to St. George's school, she's completely inexperienced-as clueless about disciplining hormone-driven students as she is about how to dress, inclining toward the sheer, diaphanous, and fey when corduroy or tweed would be in order. More expert, however, is experienced faculty member Barbara Covett-40ish, single, lonely-who casts a cool eye on the exotic Sheba, gradually is drawn closer, and ends up an intimate friend: kind of Wuthering Heights's Nelly Dean to Sheba, making notes, keeping a timeline, and writing a narrative (this novel) of the whole debacle of Sheba's affair. Barbara's tale is often stiff and clumsy ("I daresay we shall never know for certain the exact progress of her romantic attachment"), but it neatly limns the contrast between Barbara's drab, spinsterish life and Sheba's charming, fecund, expansive domesticity, with her academic husband (though he's a snob), and her two healthy children (the older, though, a fiercely troubled teenager and the younger, doted on by Sheba, a victim of Down's syndrome). There's a major disconnect between all of this on the one hand and, on the other, Sheba's letting herself be seduced by the callow working-class Steven Connolly, then continuing the affair for months, keeping it a secret even from Barbara, until inevitable exposure and with it the promise of loss, penalty, breakup, dislocation, perhaps even imprisonment, though the story (wisely) ends with this last yet to come, leaving us only with a powerful sense of the piercing loneliness of Barbara of the inexplicablyself-invited ruin of the charming and yet utterly lost Sheba-her family ruined, her future depraved. Unbelievable yet compelling: it's almost as if Heller tried for a salacious potboiler and ended up-her talent refusing not to intrude-with a portrait that remains indelible. Watch for her next, whatever it may be. Author tour
“An inspired tale of two women, one seen through the other’s eyes, with the viewer revealing more of herself than she ever suspects. From the first sentence to the last, the story and the writing of it have a thrilling intensity that holds the reader’s rapt attention.” —Paula Fox
“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