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WHAT WAS SHE THINKING? by Zoë Heller

WHAT WAS SHE THINKING?

Notes on a Scandal

By Zoë Heller

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-8050-7333-7
Publisher: Henry Holt

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 inexplicably self-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.