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What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal]

3.72  ·  Rating details ·  19,310 ratings  ·  1,826 reviews
Schoolteacher Barbara Covett has led a solitary life until Sheba Hart, the new art teacher at St. George's, befriends her. But even as their relationship develops, so too does another: Sheba has begun an illicit affair with an underage male student. When the scandal turns into a media circus, Barbara decides to write an account in her friend's defense—and ends up revealing ...more
Paperback, 258 pages
Published June 1st 2004 by Picador (first published June 1st 2003)
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Kteba I liked it. What I found most impressive was the dark humor underlying the narrative. It was a delectable story that featured not one likeable charact…moreI liked it. What I found most impressive was the dark humor underlying the narrative. It was a delectable story that featured not one likeable character. (Well, except Sheba's son, the one true victim of all of these people's narcissism.) Pretty agile writing, no?(less)
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Jan 16, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Move over Stephen King, now this is scary shit.

I'll admit, it's frightening that Sheba, a grown woman with children, can abandon her senses to the point of having a sexual affair with her 15 year old student, putting her whole privileged life at risk. The consequences of such a scandalous relationship bring nothing short of disaster for Sheba's family, her career, her reputation. Even when the reader can see these consequences advancing as though in slow motion, we shield our eyes from the impen
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 (see my review HERE), I thought it would be interesting to read a more modern take on such a difficult subject, albeit with sexes 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 eas
Aug 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
4.5 Stars.

This is so good!!

Forbidden relationship,

And brilliant story telling.

I watched the film years ago and the book is even better.

‘I’m not sure I could categorize what this is. People always want to boil these things down, don’t they ? I want to recapture my lost youth. He wants experience. I’m forcing him into it. He’s forcing me into it. He feels sorry for me. I feel sorry for him… But it’s never that simple, is it?’

One woman
Mar 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
GLORIOUS FUN! What Was She Thinking earned a very well-deserved Man Booker Prize nomination in 2003.

This story is so much more than the surface scandal of the teacher and the student, which really just provides the backdrop.

Written in diary form, the story-teller (a friend of the teacher's) is retelling the events of the past months, leading up to the present-day ending.

The diary-writer is a delicious character to unravel. You love her, you feel for her, yet at times... she creeps you out. Are h
Petra-X Off having adventures
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
Aug 13, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Taut, cleverly written and gripping, Notes On A Scandal is a thought-provoking and disturbing book. Dealing with an illicit affair between a teacher and a student, the book is a great study of human nature. Heller wrote complex and intriguing characters, not at all likeable but still somewhat compelling. Notes On A Scandal is an addictive and chilling read and I highly recommend it.
Jun 05, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2014, uk, seen-movie
I actually enjoyed this a lot more than i thought i would.
Interesting being told from Barbara's point of view. But i really hated Barbara.
Nandakishore Varma
Notes on a Scandal is an extremely sordid story, narrated by a totally unlikeable (and unreliable?) narrator – dealing with an illicit sexual affair between a frustrated middle-aged schoolteacher and a disadvantaged teenage student with learning difficulties. Almost all of the dramatis personae are despicable and there is not a single ray of hope in the whole sorry episode. That it makes a gripping read speaks volumes for Zoe Heller’s mastery of the written medium.

Barbara Covett is a middle-aged
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
Oct 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: set-in-the-uk
A married female teacher, Sheba Hart, has an affair with a fifteen year old pupil. The story is narrated by another teacher at the school, an elderly spinster who herself develops romantic feelings for Sheba. There was lots to like but I also had two misgivings. One was that there was never a surprise. Once the scenario had been outlined it was a bit too obvious what was going to happen. I felt the narrator could have been developed more subtly, with more artistry. Often she was too lucid, too r ...more
Glenn Sumi
Feb 19, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Kelly (and the Book Boar)
Find all of my reviews at:

If you follow my reviews you’ll know my brain failed me once again as somehow I put myself on the library waiting list for this selection and failed to make any kind of bookmark to remind myself why. I vaguely remember some sort of list about “characters you love to hate,” but I’ll be damned if I can find the sumbitch now. Why wouldn’t I save that????? Those are my favorite characters! The only thing I can think is it must have been a
Jan 24, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2012, fiction
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 12, 2015 rated it it was amazing
First off, can we talk about that perfectly chosen surname? Barbara Covett--it's Dickinsian! Excuse him, what he means is Dickensian. It always makes me shake my head when people give a book a bad review because they did not like the main character. Were you supposed to like the main character? In this one the answer is a firm NO. Right, then the author did her job. So heads up, you will not like this main character, but then there are those of us who adore unlikeable characters and relished eve ...more
Emily B
Jan 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I read notes on a scandal in less than a day and found myself getting gripped by the second page. The storyline of a teacher and her student involved in an affair is an engaging one however Barbara’s narration adds another dimension to the story.

One thing that annoyed me about the book was the frequent use of French words. I guess it’s just another part of the narrators interesting personality. I’m not sure why it grated on me so much.

‘...what is romance, but a mutual pact of delusion? When th
Paul Bryant
Sep 27, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: novels
Bells in many readers’ heads will be clanging repeatedly as they devour this frankly vicious novel. The frumpy 62 year old spinster Barbara Covett, a teacher, who gloms onto svelte hippyish upper-class 41 year old Sheba Hart (ages are most relevant as will be seen) the moment she bicycles into the school playground to take up pottery teaching puts out a very strong TOM RIPLEY vibe as she strives mightily to become Sheba’s BFF and to ooze into Sheba’s very bloodstream, like psycho Tom does to Dic ...more
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
Jul 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Melody Sams
Jul 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
Having seen the movie adaptation of this years ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had a distaste for both Sheba and Barbara from the film, so I expected to feel the same way about the book characters. Turns out, this was only partially true. I found myself entirely unsympathetic towards Sheba and her completely depraved self-absorption. However, Barbara was a different story. I was saddened by her inner dialog and felt she was deserving of pity. She was in no way the cold, heartless snoop that ...more
Dannii Elle
This was one of the longest standing, unread members on my shelves and it feels like such an accomplishment to have now actually read it!

As the title suggests, this novel is a compilation of the observations from Barbara Covett upon the scandalous affair between new teacher and friend, Sheba Hart, and one of their students. Barbara's examination has much to tell the reader about both the scandal this focuses on, and also the lonely individual wielding the pen.

I know many a reader with whom the s
Nov 13, 2015 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.

Mar 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2019, books-to-film
Sheba Hart (quite the name!) is a new art teacher at St Georges school. She floats in stealing all the attention in the teachers room, and Barbara Covett (Ironic name?) has her eye trained on Sheba. Barbara tells us this story from her detailed and slightly creepy perspective. She's detailing the relationship Sheba has with the others at St Georges, including an inappropriate one with a student. We learn this at the very beginning, then Barbara goes back and forth, until both storylines converge ...more
May 26, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: dark
Read this before the movie was done. Read it during ski-ing holiday. Very well written, intriguing book.
I read this book in early March, then struggled for the next 10 months to write a befitting review because I was so intimidated. Today is the last day of the year and I'm still rendered pretty much wordless.

Suffice to say: What Was She Thinking is a cleverly crafted, exceedingly well-written masterpiece of a novel that masquerades as focusing on one woman's public sex scandal while simultaneously exposing the many hypocrisies and stubborn denials of all its other characters, especially the narr
Jul 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2017, perfect-novels
Here's the crazy thing that happens in Zoe Heller's funny, crushing, brilliant Notes on a Scandal, and it's not the part where a teacher fucks her student. You'd think it would be, right? Pretty, gauzy pottery teacher Sheba has an affair with her teenaged student, and there's your book. It's narrated by a lonely old spinster named Barbara, who's been ignored on the sidelines all her life. You think she's the fifth business - a sideline reporter, a bystander. But here's the crazy thing: slowly bu ...more
Apr 25, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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
Vimal Thiagarajan
Nov 12, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, booker
Venting it out is easy, but venting it out in style isn't. That is if one isn't Zoe Heller. What acerbity, what acrimony, what sarcasm, what was she thinking?

This book is so many things, but it primarily came across as a caustic compendium of anti-hypocrisy tirades directed at anyone and everyone with a vitriolic flair that is one of its kind. It's one of those books where in an effort to note down catchy sentences, I ended up rewriting the entire book. It didn't matter whether it was sunny or
Spoilers everywhere.

This book starts where you expect and ends where you have no idea what just happened. A truly gripping ride.

The three characters of this book that stand out: Barbara (60, history teacher), Sheba(40, pottery teacher) and Connoly (15, their student). While the story is told in Barbara's diary, the scandal of which the title speaks is the sexual relationship between Sheba and Connolly, her pupil. You might start the book with the knowledge that you are appalled by such an idea
Oct 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
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
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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.


Articles featuring this book

Jennifer Weiner is the author of many bestsellers, including Good in Bed, In Her Shoes, and Mrs. Everything. She's also a contributing opinion...
95 likes · 26 comments
“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.” 113 likes
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