What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal
by Zoe Heller
A review by James Marcus
At first glance the narrator of What Was She Thinking? might easily pass
for one of Anita Brookner's sexless and sardonic spinsters. Barbara Covett is
a sixtyish schoolteacher with no friends, a beloved cat, and a pronounced distaste
for contemporary British life. Her students are thugs, her colleagues are prattling
nitwits. The local supermarket strikes her as a preserve of freakish loners. Even
a display of fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day manages to rub this devoted anti-sensualist
the wrong way: "I suspect that only the tiniest fraction of the crowd gathered
on the top of Primrose Hill was genuinely invested in the spectacle, but we all
stayed there for a full, frigid hour, dutifully manufacturing sharp intakes of
breath and other symptoms of ingenuous wonderment."
What brings Barbara out of her shell is an entirely different sort of fireworks.
First she is drawn to a new arrival, Sheba Hart, a pottery teacher with deliciously
upper-class diction and a diaphanous wardrobe. Then she learns that Sheba, married
with two children, is carrying on a high-octane sexual relationship with one
of her fifteen-year-old pupils a fact that promptly ignites a tabloid firestorm.
The scandal has a tonic effect on the narrator, transforming her into (as one
of the tabloids puts it) "the saucy schoolteacher's spin doctor."
Indeed, the book we're reading turns out to be Barbara's own account of Sheba's
liaison, including the dirty bits that she couldn't possibly have witnessed.
Her mixed motives for concocting such a voyeuristic tall tale are ultimately
what give Heller's novel its queasy, heartbreaking kick. "For most people,"
Barbara says, "honesty is such an unusual departure from their standard
modus operandi such an aberration in their workaday mendacity." Her
own mendacity is more refined, wonderfully entertaining, and deeply (which is
to say tragically) unconscious.
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