Tuesday, June 05, 2007


What Was She Thinking, Zoe Heller, Henry Holt and Company, 2003, 258 pp

I read this before watching "Notes on a Scandal", the subtitle of the book and the name of the movie made from it. Actually, I haven't seen the movie yet. It is somewhere in my Netflix queue. I was impressed by the writing which is simple but masterful, and by the several layers on which the story works.

Ostensibly it is about a 40 year old married, upper middle class woman who has an affair with a 15 year old pupil at the public school where she teaches pottery. They are found out and a scandal ensues, ruining Sheba's life and marriage. But the real story is about female friendship, which every woman knows is an aspect of life fraught with pitfalls. Barbara Covett is an older teacher at Sheba's school, a lonely spinster, who tells the tale and is Sheba's only friend after the scandal breaks.

Barbara is a piece of work, as they say. Her obsessions with Sheba, with her cat Portia and with the affair are what power the story. I was reminded of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Woven throughout is a rich layer of social satire. Really I haven't read a better, more complex book about modern life in a long time. I am highly anticipating the movie, especially with Judi Dench as Barbara.

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