Sunday, August 27, 2006

26. What Was She Thinking?

by Zoe Heller

I first have to say that I’m sad, but not shocked, to learn that Chicklit is closing. I discovered the site a couple years after its inception and it’s been something of a haven for all of us booklovers. I’m sure we’ll all miss it terribly. Thankfully, the forums will remain open and we’ll continue to be able to glean book knowledge and opinion from those with whom we share our love. I can’t say how many books I’ve read or now have an interest in reading because of a discussion in the forums and I don’t know where I’ll turn if those close one day, too. But for now, I’d like to thank Deborah and all the wonderful people who kept Chicklit alive as long as it was and I’ll continue to look forward to reading the forums on a regular basis. Chicklit was a good thing.

I second have to say that one of the discussions in the Chicklit forums is about the struggle to find enough time to read. While I do everything from reading while waiting for the El, while on the El, while watching TV, and while eating, the one thing I thought I’d try out is reading while cooking. You’re always waiting for one thing to heat up or stirring something, which leaves one hand free, so it seems like a good idea, right? Okay…I now have an oil stain on the back of my hardcover edition of this book! Luckily, I had taken the dustjacket off, like I do with all hardcovers, but still! I’m one of those people who can’t fathom dog-earing pages, let alone spilling food on a book. Cooking and reading shall be separate endeavors from this point forth.

Shortlisted for the Booker in 2003, Zoe Heller’s What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] is the sort of book you’d think were just regurgitating current headlines if it weren’t written so well and so damned entertaining. Written from the first person perspective of Barbara, a teacher at St. George’s, the story is about Barbara’s colleague Sheba, the school’s new ceramics teacher, and her affair with student Steven Connelly. The story is written in the form of a manuscript Barbara is composing after the affair has been discovered. What Barbara plans on doing with the manuscript after it’s completed we don’t really know; she justifies the work as the necessary one of getting all the details down straight. We open when Sheba is just starting at the school and is somewhat aloof and ambivalent toward her new coworkers. Barbara worries that Sheba will become close to the wrong people but, despite her after-the-fact belief that the two were destined to become close, she steers clear of the newbie as well.

It’s clear to Sheba that Connelly has a crush on her, but she reproves him at first and just allows him into her classroom outside of class hours so they can talk about art. It’s not long, though, before Connelly pushes forward and the two embark on their destructive affair. It’s not clear to anyone, including Barbara, why Sheba starts her affair because she seems to have a decent family life with an intelligent husband and children, though they may be difficult (her son has Down’s syndrome and her daughter is at her rebellious teenager phase, but whose family life is perfect anyway?). It’s as if Sheba has reverted to being a teenager herself and is getting carried away with a stupid crush that can never amount to anything.

It’s interesting to me that I kind of had an icky reaction to Sheba’s descriptions of her sex life. As I’m getting older, I’m realizing that the idea of being with younger guys creeps me out. This is becoming especially evident as I’m slated to celebrate my quartennial birthday (I’m making that word up, but there’s got to be a word for quarter-of-a-century, right?) in a few weeks and I’ve updated my minimum age from as-long-as-they’re-21 to a few years past that. Seriously, who wants to be with a little boy? So I found the fact that Sheba was so passionate about her physical relationship with Connelly, in a word, gross. And when Connelly unceremoniously dumped Sheba and she started going crazy over relationship’s dissolution I thought, well that’s what you get when you mess with a kid. Not that of-age relationships are any easier or, in some cases, any more mature, but at least you’ve got a little leg up with them as opposed to when you’re with a literal fifteen-year-old.

Eventually the relationship does end and with it comes the destruction of Sheba’s family. Her daughter runs off to Scotland and holes herself with Sheba’s judgmental mother. Her husband won’t allow her to visit with their son unchaperoned. She’s an emotional wreck and the media is chomping at the bit to get to her. It’s an ending you’d expect for this kind of tryst, but what makes this story so great and different from others is that we get to hear about it from Barbara’s point of view. Indeed, word of the affair might never have gotten out had it not been for Barbara’s small slip-up with a coworker. Introverted and traditional, Barbara might well be called the matron of the school and the only teacher who the students are a little afraid of. Barbara’s also a lonely woman, though she may never admit it, and after she and Sheba become friends it’s obvious to the reader that she takes advantage of the latter’s situation to live a little vicarious excitement. She takes the emotionally beaten Sheba under her wing, living with her, cooking for her, and generally mothering her. It may be Sheba who’s convinced that she’ll never be able to get over her romantic tragedy, but it’s Barbara who’ll experience the true fall out if she ever does. So subtle and prim is Barbara’s involvement that it’s of great amusement to the reader when they realize just how much Barbara has come to depend on Sheba. Heller’s construction of these characters is incredibly spot on, causing me to I do something I don’t usually do: finish this book in only one day.

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