What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal]: A Review

What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] by Zoe Heller is a riveting, dark and deeply disturbing novel written in intelligent and elegant prose. The novel is told through the point of view of Barbara Covett, a teacher whose loneliness draws her into an obsession over new school teacher Sheba Hart. Barbara's voice is strong and stirring. She appears to be bluntly honest in her narration, but her character is so layered with years of solitude and twisted obsession that you can't help to wonder what she still remains to keep to herself. Through out the novel, Barbara chronicles the love affair of her fellow teacher, Sheba, and a fifth year student, Steven Connolly. Barbara states "This is not a story about me" - but of course it is about her. It's about her addictive need to be needed by Sheba and her obsession with Sheba's life, even in the disturbing details of Sheba's affair with a student at the school they teach at together. It is with sophistication that Barbara tells Sheba's, and her own, story. And with this sophistication you cannot help but to sympathize with not only the bitter spinster, but the child molester as well.

In reminiscence of Lolita, we once again get into the mind of a child molester, but only this time as told by a friend of the pedophile. Taken straight from the headlines, Heller delves into the deeper mind of women molesters. As someone who strongly advocates for women and children rights, it is extremely hard for me to sympathize with pedophiles, but Heller did what Nabokov failed to do for me in Lolita. I grew to like and care for Sheba. I even sympathized with her for a long time before realizing by the end of the book she was just plain crazy and totally self absorbed. In Lolita I never once sympathized with Humbert Humbert. While I was in awe of the writing, perhaps the best written book I've ever read, by the end of the novel I was in such disgust with Humbert that the only thing that got me to finish reading the novel was to find out what happened to Dolores. I pretty much disliked Humbert from the beginning and the dislike grew quite comfortably into a despise. And it's not just that it was obvious how much he was damaging Dolores, because I think by the end of Notes we can see that despite Barbara's defensive claims that "the boy" was not traumatized by any of the events that Steven began to show signs of the strain of the relationship, and since we got a very third person view of him, I'm sure it was even worse than we were shown.

What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] is a complex and highly suspenseful novel. I finished it in two days (record time for me with my busy life) and was thinking about it when I wasn't reading it and long after I was finished reading it. I even had trouble getting into the book I started reading after finishing Notes and felt almost dogged down by the drastically different style of writing between Notes and Richard Ford's The Sportswriter. Gone was the intensity and vivid scenes of Notes and here I was reading a leisurely paced book with tons of back story, sporadic scenes and theoretical rants about life by the narrator. The intensity and the characters of Notes are addicting and I fed off of Barbara's obsessiveness to the degree that I was solidly obsessed with the book for a couple of days. I'm still raving about its power and eloquence to anyone who even looks like they could read a book for fun. And fun this novel is, from the emotional roller coaster ride to the deep complexity of the characters, I was hooked from the beginning and am still hooked days after finishing the last haunting page. It is an end without an end, an end that leaves you imagining what will happen to the characters afterwards (do you ever imagine your own ending when novels leave the endings ambiguous?) But it is an end that in it's own way is satisfying and perfect. It is the only ending that Barbara would have ever told.

I'll be trying to see the movie version this weekend. So far it's only in our specialty "artsy" theaters, so I'll be trying to manage over to downtown Cincy for a show. I'm really excited to see the movie, I think this book lays the script for an excellent movie. And since I'd seen the commercials for the movie before I read the book, I could only imagine Sheba and Barbara as Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench, which actually really annoys me. I like to imagine the characters myself before having them fully formed in a movie, but oh well. There was no avoiding that.

Oh, and I wanted to mention real quick, I'd read in other reviews of Notes the long and tedious name of the novel and at first I was inclined to agree. However, after reading the novel I couldn't think of a title that would fit Barbara's academic snobbery better and after all, it is her writing the book, isn't it?



Mas said...

You'll have to do another post once you've seen the movie. I saw it yesterday and had lots of thoughts about why/where/for what effect the filmmakers chose to deviate from the book.
And I'm guessing/hoping you're feeling better now mai wen.

mai wen said...

Thank you Mas, I am feeling better, except the weather's absolutely miserable right now! But I put in my two weeks at my job yesterday so I'm pretty stoked about that!

I'm really excited to see the movie, I love Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett and my friend (who hasn't read the book) thought it was great! I'll definitely post about it!!

Patry Francis said...

I've been meaning to get to this--both the book and the movie. Your review convinced me!


blogger templates | Make Money Online