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 friend's defensean 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.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
What Was She Thinking? is the basis of the 2006 film, Notes on a Scandal, starring Judi Dench and Kate Blanchett.
|Edition description:||First Edition|
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About the Author
Zoë Heller was born in London and lives in New York City. Currently a columnist for London's Daily Telegraph, she has contributed to such publications as Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The Independent, The Sunday Times (London), and The New Republic. She is also the author of the novel Everything You Know.
Read an Excerpt
WHAT WAS SHE THINKING?NOTES ON A SCANDAL
By ZOË HELLER
HENRY HOLT AND COMPANYCopyright © 2003 Zoë Heller All right reserved. ISBN: 0-8050-7333-7
Chapter OneThe 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 bicycle-an 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 complicated-lots 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 dismounted-with a lithe, rather irritating little skip-I 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." Afternoon break isnot 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 read-the 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 structures-the Gym, the Arts Centre, and the Science Block-the 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 up-do their raping and pillaging-and 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 afraid-the 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 he imagines himself tremendously naughty and shocking-a 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 magnanimously-the 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 details-the 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 a moment, 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 sympathy-as if she understood how maddening it might be to be patronised by Mawson.
"Sheba-is 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 sounded as if her mouth were very empty and clean-as 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 characters-people 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 themselves-and 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 eyes-no, not so much the eyes as the eyelids-were 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, weather-based 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 favoured the 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, newcomers-particularly female ones-are 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-suited-temperament-wise, humour-wise, worldview-wise-to 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 trust-a 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.
Excerpted from WHAT WAS SHE THINKING? by ZOË HELLER
Copyright © 2003 by Zoë Heller
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Reading Group Guide
1. There has traditionally been a taboo on older women/younger men relationships. In the novel, the news media describes the affair between Sheba and Connolly as
"despicable" and "unhealthy." Why do you think it has historically been viewed this way?
Do you agree?
2. Heller expertly captures the insulating and sometimes claustrophobic atmosphere of academia. Give examples of this, and discuss the differences and similarities between Sheba and Barbara that brought them to teach at the same institution.
3. Connolly's unabashed admiration and innocence prove irresistible to Sheba. How are Connolly's attentions much different from the oglings of her academic colleagues since both indicate that they find her sexually attractive? Why is one so much more flattering?
4. What makes a woman like Sheba behave so irresponsibly? How easy was it for her to risk everything for the danger of the relationship?
Does Sheba really think about the consequences of her actions?
5. Why does Sheba's friendship with Sue
Hodges seem so ill-founded to Barbara? Why would Sheba choose Sue as her confidant
she never mentions Connolly's visits to Sue.
How does Barbara seduce Sheba away from
6. Barbara observes that Connolly's overt effort to please Sheba is like ‘the cynicism of all
courtship." Discuss what she means by this.
7. Barbara asks why Sheba insists on seeing
Connolly as gifted and extraordinary in a sea of fairly ordinary, untalented students. Does the element of class exacerbate the forbidden nature of the relationship? Is
Connolly exploiting this? What is his culpability in the situation?
8. Why, when Barbara seems like such a prim and formal person, is she initially so sympathetic to Sheba's predicament? Why is she not appalled? She says she thinks that
Connolly is actually benefiting from the relationship, not being abused by it. Is it her desire for Sheba's friendship or pure feminist support? Does she take vicarious pleasure in it?
9. What is Barbara's reaction when she finally finds out about the affair? Is this the cause of her betrayal? Does it lead to her punishment at St. George's? Does Barbara have the right to set down the events in writing? Discuss how their friendship provides as fertile ground for mutual misunderstanding,
jealousy, and treachery as does the illicit love affair.
10. The story is finally about the two women,
and the many facets of female friendship.
Discuss the ways in which Heller's device of having Barbara tell the story serves to enrich the novel by revealing both women's
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I wonder sometimes if the only people who write reviews are the ones who love something? This book I bought to consider for a book club--not a great one for it, as some would be uncomfortable with the idea of sex between a teacher and student, especially given that most of the discussion of sex and her descriptions of his testicles, for example, come right in the beginning. It is a book best read alone, and thought about. Not particularly entertaining, rather, an unusually frank and accurate discussion of how, in fact, women court each other, and the politics of platonic relationships.
Delicious. It is the only word I can think of that sums this novel up. There is something so dirty and icky about it that just hooks claws into you. Loved it!
Very well written and presented tale of a british public high school teacher who has an affair with a student. it is told from the perspective of her friend, who is a petty, jealous woman - perfectly played by judith dench in the movie. it is a character that must have been written with dame judith in mind.
This is a rather sad book. I felt that Barbara the narrator and main character is a rather pathetic and sad person. The book seems to indicate that we humans are lonely and that we are doomed to look for affection in all the wrong places. Barbara tends to look for exclusive friendships where she is the dominant person. Sheba embarks on an affair with her under aged student. Steven, the students also seems very pathetic. It is just very sad.
We know it happens, but it is kind of creepy to read about it. The affair between a female teacher and her male student is never fully explained--of course, mental illness is the most obvious explanation, but it's never explicit. I think it would have been more interesting to have the novel told from the perspective of the female teacher rather than the co-worker.
Good in the beginning: about a love affair between a teacher (female) and her male 15 year old student, as observed by an older, slowly revealed as a lesbian, teacher. It would have been better with more suspense about the reliability of the observer - and this could have ameliorated the rather flat ending.
Barbara and Sheba, underage school boy. Unputdownable!
meh.Didn't hate it. I've just read some really fabulous books so far this year, and "Scandal" left me flat. There was something seriously lacking. A string of events and facts, but nothing to tie them all together or keep the reader glued.The story is about two teachers at a private London school: one is the lonely spinster. The other is a new pottery teacher with a family at home. The pottery teacher has an affair with a 16-year old student. She is ultimately caught. The story is told from the point-of-view of the spinster friend, who we learn more about than the scandalized teacher. That's honestly all I got out of it. :(
I've never read a book written in this way before. I loved it. It soon became a fast favorite of mine. I enjoyed the dynamics of the main character and why she was so desperate of love and affection, although, her outward personality deflected it.
Now, when I saw that there was a movie coming out, naturally I had to read the book first (I plan to see the movie in the near future). I thought it was a pretty average read overall. The writer expressed the emotions clearly, and the characters were so believable, but I just got annoyed by Sheba. She kept whining about Connolly and that got to me. Barbara, on the other hand, was an excellent character, but sometimes I wished she¿d shut up and mind her own business. While I found nothing remarkable about the book (yes, it did show the other side of an alleged ¿child molester¿), it was a good read.
Took FOREVER for anything to happen. The prim, self-important narrator was agonizingly dull.
Meet Barbara, your typical, close to retirement teacher. She has her requisite cat, and her lonely existence. But then she meets Sheba, a beautiful forty something who has a nice existence and instantly wants to be her friend...or more? But Sheba isn't perfect either.. Sheba has the hots for a student, which just spells out trouble. Read this unique novel in which the story is told from an outsider who is hardly unbiased. I finished this book quickly and I enjoyed it.
Sheba, a 40-something teacher, wife and mother of two children has an affair with one of her fifteen-year-old students. The book is written from the perspective of Barbara, a 60-something teacher and spinister who befriends Sheba and then decides to write a book about the incident. First of all, every character in this book is dispicable and unlikeable except for Sheba's son Ben who has Down's Syndrome. Secondly, a 40 year old and a fifteen year old? Gross! Thirdly, Barbara is just creepy and her obsession with Sheba makes me wonder if she is meant to be the true villian of the story? Despite these feelings, the book wasn't horrible reading and I'd love to discuss it with anyone who has read it.
In light of teachers sleeping with their students, Zoe Heller tells the tale of a teacher who tried to maintain a relationship with a student, as told from the perspective of a friend of the teacher's. Nowadays-drama at its finest!
Disgusting book. I read until page 85 an couldn't stand to read any more...
Zoe Heller is an incredible writer and there were so many layers to this story.I really felt the story was about what lengths a person will go to attain a friendship, the subject of the teacher and student was very disturbing and seemed to be more of one of the many layers in the story.
The title was more exciting than the actual book. Not what I would have called a scandal. The entire book sets up the scene for the last 3 chapters. It builds and builds with out much action.
This book never grabbed me, I had to read it for my book club, otherwise I would have stopped halfway through it. I didn't like any of the characters and really didn't care what happened to them.
This book was gripping! The main characters are disfunctional and they suck you in. The author goes on a deeper level of internal struggles.
Normally, this is the sort of book I do not like, but I was given this book as a gift and read it in literally, two hours. It is gripping, funny, and psychologically enticing. Barbara is one of the most original 'maiden ladies' I've ever met in literature--she brings to mind E.M. Forster's Miss Bartlett, the perennial biddy of A Room With a View. However, Heller develops her own Barbara far more deeply and intensely. A wonderful work of literature.