Wednesday, May 14, 2008

What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal]: A Novel by Zoe Heller - 258 Pages

Book CoverThough this novel was slight, at a mere 258 pages, it really packs a punch. It is the story of Sheba, a middle-aged teacher, who has an affair with her 15 year old student. As if this tale weren't unsettling enough, the author introduces Barbara, an older woman who befriends Sheba and begins to insert herself into Sheba's life with unexpected results.

The novel is framed as a secret journal that Barbara keeps, detailing Sheba's controversial relationship with the young boy. As the novel progresses, the interactions between Sheba and her family (as seen through Barbara's eyes) become more strained and vicious. This is saying a lot for a family who already exhibits an unhealthy set of boundaries. In addition to this, the distressing relationship between student and teacher played out in a most painfully disturbing and complex way. It was perturbing to watch a grown woman behave so abhorrently.

At first, Sheba is portrayed as a weak and unassuming person, who has trouble with even disciplining her class effectively. As time goes on, we begin to see her as she really is: a neurotic and selfish woman who has unrealistic expectations for herself and her young suitor. At times she even seems deranged. Sheba is a complex character who seems to want to go in every direction at once. She wants to be a loving wife and good mother, yet at the same time she wants to abandon it all for her boy toy. She wants to be respected as a teacher, yet be accepted by the young students. She loves and cares for Barbara, while also treating her with selfishness and contempt. She is a walking contradiction.

As for Barbara. Well. I loved the character of Barbara. At first. She was crotchety and meddlesome with no apologies, and I found her very refreshing in today's PC world. She said the things that everybody thinks, yet no one says. She never pussy-footed around delicate issues, and had no apologies for her behavior whatsoever. I felt sad and dismayed at her loneliness and her solitary life. It seemed as though she was so angry and hostile because she was alone and misunderstood. I even forgave her gaffes in etiquette towards others, believing that once she developed friendships she would be less abrasive. It seemed as though she had so much to give to a friend, and her constant wistfulness and appreciation for Sheba's friendship was stirring. I gave Barbara the benefit of the doubt, and I shouldn't have. After befriending Sheba, she quickly became malevolent and secretive. Her meanness and hostility didn't abate once her loneliness was assuaged, it only got worse. Her acts towards Sheba and her family appeared compassionate and caring, but the undercurrent was one of aggressive duplicity.

Another aspect of the book was Sheba's relationship with her husband, a much older man, and her relationship with her children. Though everything seemed rosy in the beginning, as more was revealed, the picture became darker and darker. Sheba's husband in particular exhibited some stunning lack of judgement regarding their teen-aged daughter. It was clear that the family structure was breaking down at the most fundamental levels, and Sheba's inclusion of Barbara into the family picture made it all the worse. I literally cringed, waiting for the house of cards to fall down.

One of the strangest aspects of the book was Sheba's relationship and attachment to her student/boyfriend. At times it seemed bizarre and otherworldly. It was as if she had mentally regressed back to adolescence when talking about him or dealing with him. Her behavior was so tortured and erratic that It was hard to believe that she was the same person. In my opinion, I believe that Sheba became mentally unglued sometime around the middle of the book.

Add to all this weirdness Barbara's friendship with Sheba. She gradually goes from grumbling solitary old lady to venomous witch. It was hard to realize when this happened, because at times she could be so truly needy and lonely. She began to develop her own twisted beliefs about her friendship with Sheba, and would not see that her clingy and strange behavior was not appreciated. Her complicity in Sheba's folly began to bring to light some of the awful possibilities of her character. I truly hated Barbara by the end.

This book was a departure from my regular reads, but I was fascinated by it. I tore through it in a half a day, and was so chilled by the last sentence, I was astonished. I loved the complexity of the characters, and the gradual realizations that kept me entranced. I found this book to be very entertaining, yet slightly disturbing. I thought a lot about it after it was done, and realized that though ostensibly this was a book about Sheba and her poor choices, it was really about Barbara and her cruelness. Some would even venture to call Barbara a mild sociopath. I wouldn't disagree. I think that both women showed signs of mental instability, but of very different natures.

I should also mention that there is a movie version of the book, starring Judy Dench as Barbara and Kate Blanchette as Sheba. I saw the movie, and have to say that the book was much better (isn't that always the case?) The movie took some complex issues and rolled them into a sensationalistic story. It did nothing to highlight the gradual decline of the characters, or the complexity of Barbara's evil. The end was particularly disappointing, and lacked the punch of the book. The only accolades I can give it is that the casting was superb, and the acting was great.

Overall, this was a great and engrossing read.


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