If anyone ever needed a loyal spin doctor, it's Sheba Hart. The heroine of Zoë Heller's darkly comic second novel, What Was She Thinking?, is a 42-year-old high school teacher who is caught having an affair with Steven Connolly, one of her 15-year-old students ... Heller, London-born and Oxford-educated, is particularly witty when parsing British class perceptions... At the novel's center is a dead-on meditation about the different treatment of male and female sex offenders ... The plot twist may not be a huge surprise, but Heller handles it with wry grace, managing to mock her characters without allowing their story to tip into farce.
Notes on a Scandal is Barbara's retelling of what happened, detailing scenes she couldn't have possibly witnessed but claims to have been retold so many times that she may as well have been there ... Heller is, of course, an expert at depicting the cool, smooth, oh-so-proper veneer of the English upper- and not- so-upper classes: the veiled confessions, the insincere concerns, the very passive aggressions of it all ...drops plenty of hints early on that Barbara isn't the most reliable narrator around, particularly when documenting her own obsessive behavior ... Heller never dares lose control, and neither, in spite of everything, do her characters. The story holds the promise of an emotionally catastrophic denouement, but lacks the punch of Muriel Sparks' The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or Sheila Kohler's South African variation, Cracks.
As its title and first pages suggest, its surface plot concerns a tabloid-pleasing sizzler of a scandal ... Neither player tells the story in their own words, so instead of the anticipated wallow in dodgy Nabokovian delights, we're given a third party's somewhat matter-of-fact account of the charmless youth's entanglement with the unlikely school sexpot ... It's a quiet little read – yet horribly addictive. Underlying breathtakingly acute observations, and much fine writing, there's a lightness of sentiment that sporadically propels the novel into the realms of commercial pap.
If Sheba (short for Bathsheba) Hart were the narrator, What Was She Thinking?, the second novel from London's Daily Telegraph columnist Zoë Heller, would be a bodice-ripper ...Heller cleverly gives us Barbara Covett, an unreliable narrator who writes an account of Sheba's taboo affair, only to have it unravel at hints of her own instability ...Is Barbara's story partially true? Or is Sheba a figment of her twisted imagination? The exchange leaves readers without a clue, but that's all part of the fun as Heller leads readers down a hall of mirrors.
The disparity between moral hysteria and private, unknowable truths lies at the crux of Zoë Heller's witty, incisive second novel What Was She Thinking?, which covers a similar case from a closer distance, although not quite an omniscient one ... Delicately weaving two narrative lines, the scandal and its aftermath, the book is conceived as a work-in-progress, written by Barbara in the tense limbo between Sheba's indictment and her upcoming trial ... At first, What Was She Thinking? reads like a fair and well-judged attempt to set the record straight... But soon enough, her own secrets and longings come to the fore, leading to a devastating act of betrayal and the fresh realization that the events have been filtered through Barbara's complex feelings of lust, envy, resentment, and possessiveness toward her friend.
More expert, however, is experienced faculty member Barbara Covett — 40ish, single, lonely — who casts a cool eye on the exotic Sheba, gradually is drawn closer, and ends up an intimate friend: kind of Wuthering Heights’s Nelly Dean to Sheba, making notes, keeping a timeline, and writing a narrative (this novel) of the whole debacle of Sheba’s affair. Barbara’s tale is often stiff and clumsy...but it neatly limns the contrast between Barbara’s drab, spinsterish life and Sheba’s charming, fecund, expansive domesticity... Unbelievable yet compelling: it’s almost as if Heller tried for a salacious potboiler and ended up — her talent refusing not to intrude — with a portrait that remains indelible.
Sheba is herself the object of fascination for her older colleague and defender, Barbara Covett, whose interest in Sheba is not overtly romantic but has an erotic — and at times malevolent — intensity ... The novel is gripping from start to finish; Heller brings vivid, nuanced characterizations to the racy story ... Even characters on stage for a minute (a Camden barman who hams it up for Barbara) live and breathe.