Book Review: What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal

What was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal

Zoe Heller


258 pages

I’ve heard about this novel for ages, as it was shortlisted for the Booker a few years ago, but I never gave it a second glance until I read about it in Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree (which I gushed about here).

The book is written by an elderly schoolteacher named Barbara who has befriended, and is caring for, a middleaged woman named Bathsheba “Sheba” Hart.  Sheba had started teaching pottery at the same school where Barbara had taught for many years and after only a few months, she began a torrid love affair with a fifteen year old student.  Sheba has a husband and two children and she is completely cognizant of the trouble she would be in were the affair discovered, but she throws caution to the wind, and beforre she knows it, she is in over her head.

The relationship between Sheba and the student, (Steven) Connolly is so realistically unbelievable.  Sheba’s behavior is hard to grasp; she is completely sucked in by the affair, and it is hard to understand what could be so attractive about a fifteen year old boy.  But I believed it.  I couldn’t fathom her conduct but I could certainly sympathize with her, which I didn’t anticipate when the book began.

I was very impressed with Heller’s knack for character development.  She really nailed it, and due to that, I was invested in the novel.  Barbara, the protagonist, especially impressed me.  I wouldn’t normally be so interested in a spinster woman with a touch of bitterness.  Barbara is unable to form any meaningful relationships, and she tends to be more of a loner.  Her attitude tends to be too forceful and polarizing, but once she forges a relationship with Sheba, she is able to find an outlet for her loneliness.

Last week, I suggested this book as the next choice for my real life bookclub.  I think it will offer a great forum for discussion and I am anxious to see what the reception will be.  I downloaded a sample of The Believers for my kindle; the plot doesn’t interest me as much but if it is even a fraction as good as Notes on a Scandal, i am sure I will enjoy it.

Other Reviews:

The Zen Leaf

another cookie crumbles

I purchased this book for my kindle.


11 Responses

  1. The Believers was actually the first book by Heller that I read and I really enjoyed it. I thought the writing was sharp and observant and also rather funny. Having now read Notes on a Scandal I don’t think The Believers is quite as good as its predecessor but it is still worth reading. For more thoughts, I wrote about The Believers here:

  2. I loved Notes on a Scandal, but I have to warn you the The Believers is very different and people don’t normally enjoy both books.

    The Notes on a Scandal film is really good too – I highly recommend watching it 🙂

  3. I was amazed at Heller’s power of observation – such a keen insight into her characters! I really liked the book, too. Unfortunately, never got around to reviewing it.

    I’ve seen mixed reviews on The Believers. Not sure whether I’ll get to it or not

  4. I’m glad you liked this one! As for The Believers, I just read it last month. I didn’t like it as much as this one, and I hated just about all the characters in it, BUT I thought it was extremely well-written, enough that I wanted to keep reading even though I didn’t like the people I was reading about. I definitely think it’s worth it.

  5. Sounds like Heller is a skilled writer. I love it when a writer can make something completely unbelievable believable. I’ve stayed away from this because I find the subject matter so disturbing, but maybe I should get over it and give it a go.

  6. The fact that you suggested this for your book club makes me think it’s a book I’d like to read. I’m adding it to my wish list.

  7. Great review! I’ve had this one on my radar for a while but never quite added it to my list. You just tipped me over the edge! “realistically unbelievable” is a great phrase.

  8. I have this but haven’t managed to read it yet. Clearly I should! It sounds really good from your review. I especially love that it goes deeper into character development.

  9. I have this on my tbr – mostly because I also want to see the movie but want to read before viewing.

  10. I’ve never heard of this book, but I am adding it to my list. It sounds incredibly intriguing. Thanks for the great review!

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