Carrie's Reviews > What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal]

What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] by Zoë Heller
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Jan 12, 09

Read in December, 2005

NB - I wrote this review before I saw the film (indeed, before there was a film, so I didn't mention it)

New book! - This is the story of a teacher, Sheba, who has an affair with her sixteen-year old student. It is told by her friend and colleague, Barbara, and it becomes clear over the course of the novel that the real story is Barbara's a she lets out her own failings while ostensibly telling her friend's story. The book is well written, in the sense that its eminently readable. The tone is true - it seems like the voice of a middle aged history teacher, and although I was somewhat of a captive audience (reading the book on the airplane) I read it straight through. In addition, I find the notion of an unreliable narrator to be eminently interesting to play with. I can understand why the book got critical raves - it's just post modern and meta enough to get their attention, and Heller has the writing chops to back it up.

However, the book was ultimately unsatisfying to me. The first reason is that Barbara was so obviously bitter and warped and not working in Sheba's interests. It would have been more satisfying to gradually come to the conclusion that she was not telling the whole truth and was not up to any good than to be certain from the get go that she was sad and strange and pitiful. This leads to my second complaint - Barbara was written as a vindictive lonely spinster who craves any human companionship, and will go to any lengths to get someone to love her. She'll do anything for human companionship, no matter how pitiful it makes her. She'll push her way into any situation. She's the ultimate stereotype of the sad unmarried woman. She has even has a cat! This is such a miserable retrograde character and such a sexist image of a miserable lonely middle-aged woman that it robs the book of some of its power. Wouldn't Barbara be more interesting if she wasn't pitiful in this awfully old fashion retrograde way?

Ms. Heller is a good writer, and I enjoyed reading her book. Yet, in the end these two problems made it a disappointing tale. I look forward to what she does next. With minor tweaks she'd be unstoppable.
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