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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, July 22nd, 2003


 

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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