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What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal

3.69  ·  Rating Details ·  14,448 Ratings  ·  1,399 Reviews
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 f
ebook, 272 pages
Published June 1st 2004 by Henry Holt and Co. (first published June 1st 2003)
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May 16, 2008 Nico rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An unforgiving, cold-eyed, wickedly beautiful little book.

A warning: if you have ever been crushingly lonely -- particularly if you have, on occasion, feebly attempted to rationalize that loneliness as a burden of your superior and isolating intelligence -- then I suspect that you, like me, will feel personally filleted by certain passages in this book.

Here's an example of Heller's brutally precise understanding of this manner of loneliness; what strikes me in this passage is how elegantly, how
Petra X smoke fish no cigar
Wonderfully-written, brilliantly-drawn characters who each vie for the title of 'most detestable person in the book' as they live through a most despicable situation of a middle-aged teacher having an affair with a young pupil and the Machiavellian machinations of an older, bitter teacher who is a repressed lesbian. I would imagine it translated better into a film, especially given the stellar cast of Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, than it read as a book.

Fantastic writing but somehow the story d
In the US, this was published as "What Was She Thinking?", with "Notes on a Scandal" in brackets, as a subtitle.

Having just read Lolita, I thought it would be interesting to read a more modern take on such a difficult subject, albeit with genders reversed...

It's the story of Sheba, a married middle-class middle-aged pottery teacher who has an affair with a 15 year old pupil. It is told by Barbara, a sixty-ish spinster who teaches in the same school, in a voice that could easily have been writt
Notes on a Scandal is a multi-layered story. While keeping up with the pretense of titillating readers with the lurid details of a much older woman's romance with an adolescent boy, it skilfully but subtly exposes the hypocrisy practiced by each one of its characters. How each one of them remained so painfully aware of Sheba's perversions while being stubbornly dismissive of their own.
Zoe Heller also forces us to rethink what we consider moral and immoral and ask ourselves whether we can really
Glenn Sumi
May 30, 2016 Glenn Sumi rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Even if you've seen the Judi Dench/Cate Blanchett film, you'll enjoy this savagely funny look at a lonely older schoolteacher, Barbara, who becomes obsessed with a younger colleague, Sheba, who in turn is obsessed with one of her younger students.

Barbara's observations, especially about some of her fellow teachers, are brutally frank and read-aloud-to-your-best-friends funny. Some details are also quite poignant.

Heller gets a lot in – a commentary about class (Heller herself was educated at Oxf
Nov 16, 2014 Mary rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, 2012
Gosh, this book creeped me out. And, it wasn't even the older woman/school boy thing; it was Barbara, the narrator. She was creepy as all hell. Maybe because my copy had Judi Dench's cold eyed stare on the cover, but from first page to last, it was utterly unnerving.

What saved this book from being a daytime made-for-TV movie was that it was told from the perspective of Barbara and not the teacher who has an affair with a pupil. Barbara is this incredibly sinister, bitter, manipulative woman who
May 03, 2010 Chris rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Sex is a complicted subject. Sometimes, literature doesn't make it easier. Neither do movies or television. There is something to be said for this; honest truths about sex and embarassment would lead to less children; however, it is rare to find a book that looks at sex and actually has something to say besides the words "drenched in her honey".

Heller does examine sexual issues in this book, and the phrase "drenched in her honey" doesn't come up at all. She takes a hard look at conset, age, and
May 08, 2016 Vanessa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was an incredibly dark, gritty, realistic novel that perfectly portrays destructive behaviour and manipulative relationships.

The story is narrated by Barbara, an older secondary school History teacher, who becomes obsessed with a new Art teacher Sheba Hart. When she finds out that Sheba has begun having a relationship with one of her pupils, she acts as her confidante, drawing the two 'friends' ever closer. However, Barbara's manipulative personality takes them to further dark places.

This is a story about scandal - but more deeply, it's a story about loneliness. Pure, desperate, bone-aching loneliness. As I wrote that, I realized it was a weak, paraphrased version of the most powerful passage in the book. And that's the difficulty of reviewing Notes on a Scandal - everything I try to say, Heller has already said, and much more powerfully. And she manages to do it all neatly and beautifully - there are no bloated metaphors or silly comparisons, only acute observations and lay ...more
Sep 03, 2010 Tatiana rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is definitely one of the best contemporary novels I've read in recent years. The quality of writing is remarkable and the subject matter is truly fascinating (at least to me).

"Notes on a Scandal" depicts a story of an affair between Sheba - a 40-year old married school teacher and her 15-year old student Steven as seen through the eyes of Sheba's elderly fellow teacher Barbara. Zoe Heller offers a fascinating perspective on such a relationship, where the victim (in legal sense) initiates an
Aug 06, 2016 Tia rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: predators
I don't give 5 stars very often. I'm so impressed with this book that I'm not quite sure where to begin.

Let's start with why I read it—I read Tampa a few months ago, and it outraged me. People (including the author, Alissa Nutting) compared Tampa to both Lolita and American Psycho, so I decided to finally read both of those. Lolita was the saddest, most horrifying thing I've ever read in my life. I think most people who love it don't actually "get" it. They're so taken with the language that the
Oct 20, 2016 Em rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: poeple who like dark and unconventional tales with antiheroes
A harrowing read..a taboo subject.. and human lives and emotions caught up in tangles.
Bathsheba, the 42 year old Pottery teacher is being pursued by law for having 'seduced' her 16 year old male student. The story unfolds through the eyes of Barbara, a senior teacher of the same school as where Sheba teaches, and who has slowly but surely become an indispensable friend to Sheba. Barbara is the only pillar of support for Sheba during her difficult circumstances.
When the events unfolded, Sheba was
Oct 19, 2016 Girish rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: booker
Cold, dark and biting! A ring side view to a vile media scandal where most of the action is off the court. Notes on a Scandal is a book that will leave you cold inside.

Let's get the taboo out of the way. Sheba, the new pottery teacher, mother of 2 teenagers, daughter of a famous economist, crush of the male staff at the school has an affair with her 16 year old student. Once you take away the focus from this, you realise it is a multi layered narrative more about the hypocrisy of the society and
Jun 21, 2016 Lisa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: british
Clever, clever, clever!

What was she thinking?... At first I just assumed we were speaking of Sheba. She slept with a 15 year old, after all! But by the end of this book, it was someone else's thoughts I was questioning.

This is a very good book, and it was made into a fantastic movie. I have to say that the movie packs the bigger punch. Judy Dench takes the character of Barbara to her fullest expression. Cate Blanchett was phenomenal as the sympathetic adulteress and mistress of her 15-year-old
Apr 19, 2010 Eve rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2010
Dear, dear Barbara. I'm not sure if Heller meant for her narrator to be a friend or foe, but something about her nature drew me to her. In the end, I can't think who was the victim: Sheba or Barbara. Good read.
Jul 12, 2007 Amanda rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not a poorly written book, but I had a difficult time empathizing with the characters. When I read a book, typically I like to come away with something: more knowledge, deeper understanding, empathy, or just a riotous good time. None of that happened with this book. I just felt empty and sad, and very baffled by these characters. I could empathize in some aspects with Barbara, but try as I might to gain some sort of insight into Sheba's psyche and relate to even a shred of what motivated her, I ...more
Mari Biella
Oct 04, 2010 Mari Biella rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favourites
Why do we raise our eyebrows at relationships between two people of markedly different ages? Why are we in such a hurry to classify certain romantic entanglements as being "exploitative", and can we ever be clear exactly who is exploiting whom anyway? These are just some of the questions you're likely to ask yourself while reading Notes on a Scandal.

On paper, this looks like a pretty cut-and-dried case: a 42-year-old married female teacher pursues a sexual relationship with a 15/16-year-old scho
Jan 30, 2011 Shovelmonkey1 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone who likes a good gossip
Recommended to Shovelmonkey1 by: Man booker shortlist
This has been on my shelf for ages and as I've been off work sick (stupid tonsils!) I decided to trawl through my books for quick and easy reads as frankly, my brain is not up to much at the moment. This seemed to fit the bill and was both a quick and enjoyable read. I didn't find is particularly sinister as such (despite what the blurb says), more just a good example of how even the best educated people with the best intentions can be easily ensnared in a self-spun web of envy, deceite and lust ...more
Mar 11, 2015 Bettie☯ rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is one for re-reading when/if I get to my rocking chair days
Bill Kupersmith
Sep 04, 2013 Bill Kupersmith rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Altho' this book disappointed me in almost all respects, I found it unputdownable; had to find out how it turned out & really cared what happens to Sheba. Wish there were a sequel describing Sheba's trial. "Grooming" used to associated with dog shows; now it's used by prosecutors to describe an adult's preparing an underage boy or girl for a sexual relationship. Presumably Sheba's encouraging Steven's artistic interests would be described as "grooming" these days.

As a former teacher myself,
Traci  Medeiros
Jul 28, 2008 Traci Medeiros rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I thought this book was amazing and that the movie, while different, really got to the heart of what the book was about-- not an easy task for such a rich and complex read. The thing that I thought was really amazing about this theme, in both the book and movie, was the way that it questioned our preconceived notions of perversion and how those notions are affected by age and gender. If you want to talk legally Sheba was the only criminal, her affections were the ones that were inappropriate, sh ...more
Jul 01, 2016 Vanessa rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A taut menacingly enticing book, this follows Barbara who has an unhealthy obsession with Sheba who is exposed having an illicit affair with a teen student from her school. A tightly crafted account from Barbara's retelling of Sheba's scandalous affair from her point of view, the plot takes a sinister turn when Barbara's obsession with Sheba turns nasty, I can't say more you'll just have to read it yourself...compelling, exciting and hard to put down!
Venkat Narayanan
A book which broaches/breaches something which is held as a sacrosanct is always going to be difficult to pull off. Ms. Heller not only yanks it off cleanly she does it again and again. If this book should be defined in one adjective and that's all one is permitted to associate/attach to it I would choose "Sumptuousness". People reading this would be probably be going "Oh! Venky has gone nuts", but allow me to explain. By sumptuousness I largely try to describe the pleasure in enjoying the brill ...more
Jennifer (aka EM)
Dec 22, 2014 Jennifer (aka EM) rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: crazy cat ladies; teachers
I can't (and couldn't, while reading) get the movie out of my head to evaluate the book entirely separately from it. If you've not seen it, Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett are both absolutely astounding in it. The book - more open-ended, more morally ambiguous - is very good, but lacks a little something.

That said, I love what Heller does creating a first-person narrator who should be, for all intents and purposes, entirely unreliable, but who with every chapter reveals another layer of the truth
Just arrived from Germany through BM.

A splendid and shocking (?) book written by Zoë Heller.

This is a love story between a new pottery teacher (Sheba) at St. George and a teenager.

The plot also shows the friendship between Sheba and Barbara who will write a diary describing their friendship and how Barbara helped Sheba to face her destiny.

It is admirable the way the author managed to introduce some hints of humor in this tragic story of passion, jealously and envy.

The original title - What Was
C.S. Burrough
Nov 23, 2014 C.S. Burrough rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone
An original concept from a great author, this was shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize. A voyeuristic journey that slowly unveils the twisted friendship between two intriguing female protagonists/antagonists (one is often uncertain which is which).

The 2006 screen adaptation saw Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett nominated for Academy Awards in a drama/psychological thriller with echoes of The Killing of Sister George and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.

As with the movie, parts of this book made t
My high school best friend was a quiet, reclusive type like me. She happened to have a close friendship with a magnetic girl, also named Rachel, who cheated on her long-term boyfriend with at least six different guys -- usually juggling more than one affair at any one time. Rachel refused to accept responsibility or criticism for the situation, but nevertheless, she still confided (constantly) to my best friend about how unsatisfying it was for her to have to be so dishonest. She couldn't help t ...more
This little book is a history of two schoolteachers who develop close friendship - Sheba and Barbara. Sheba is new in school, a menacing institution straight out of Blackboard Jungle. When one of the 15 year old students starts showing his infatuation with her, she resists at first but eventually succumbs, despite being married and having children.
What makes the book interesting is the first person narration - but Sheba is not the narrator. Notes on a Scandal is narrated by Barbara, the grumpy o
Dec 29, 2014 Antonomasia rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Antonomasia by: Blair
Really excellent stuff, which I shouldn't have sneered at ten years ago. (Nonetheless, after a while of seeing it everywhere, I'd bought a copy because I thought I ought to.)

The narrative is theatrical in the best possible way: though realist, this is obviously a story (I hardly ever even thought to nitpick), and a very well told, engrossing story it is too. The “twist” is entirely natural and plausible unlike so many plot points given that name in plenty of other books.

For a long time I assum
Jun 14, 2015 Vishnu rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It is highly unsual for me to go through an entire novel in a single sitting. If at all I do, I am aware of the time passing, the pages turning, the urge to invest time in other activities coming and going. Nonetheless, rarely have I yet encountered literature that deprives me of all other preoccupations save that of living in the moment of reading itself. Two years ago, when I first read Kinglsey Amis' incomparable 'Lucky Jim' I felt myself to be enthralled in such a manner for the first time, ...more
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Zoe Heller was born in London in 1965 and educated at Oxford University and Columbia University, New York. She is a journalist who, after writing book reviews for various newspapers, became a feature writer for The Independent. She wrote a weekly confessional column for the Sunday Times for four years, but now writes for the Daily Telegraph and earned the title 'Columnist of the Year' in 2002.

More about Zoë Heller...

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“Being alone is not the most awful thing in the world. You visit your museums and cultivate your interests and remind yourself how lucky you are not to be one of those spindly Sudanese children with flies beading their mouths. You make out To Do lists - reorganise linen cupboard, learn two sonnets. You dole out little treats to yourself - slices of ice-cream cake, concerts at Wigmore Hall. And then, every once in a while, you wake up and gaze out of the window at another bloody daybreak, and think, I cannot do this anymore. I cannot pull myself together again and spend the next fifteen hours of wakefulness fending off the fact of my own misery.

People like Sheba think that they know what it's like to be lonely. They cast their minds back to the time they broke up with a boyfriend in 1975 and endured a whole month before meeting someone new. Or the week they spent in a Bavarian steel town when they were fifteen years old, visiting their greasy-haired German pen pal and discovering that her hand-writing was the best thing about her. But about the drip drip of long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing. They don't know what it is to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the laundrette. Or to sit in a darkened flat on Halloween night, because you can't bear to expose your bleak evening to a crowd of jeering trick-or-treaters. Or to have the librarian smile pityingly and say, ‘Goodness, you're a quick reader!’ when you bring back seven books, read from cover to cover, a week after taking them out. They don't know what it is to be so chronically untouched that the accidental brush of a bus conductor's hand on your shoulder sends a jolt of longing straight to your groin. I have sat on park benches and trains and schoolroom chairs, feeling the great store of unused, objectless love sitting in my belly like a stone until I was sure I would cry out and fall, flailing, to the ground. About all of this, Sheba and her like have no clue.”
“There are certain people in whom you can detect the seeds of madness - seeds that have remained dormant only because the people in question have lived relatively comfortable, middle class lives. They function perfectly well in the world, but you can imagine, given a nasty parent, or a prolonged bout of unemployment, how their potential for craziness might have been realized.” 102 likes
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