Book of the Month: What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] By Zoë Heller

Another book of the month, yay! Now, if you already are an ardent reader of Book of the Month on this blog you may know this, but I don’t want to assume so I will say anyway that the books of the month I feature do not necessarily have to be new or recent books. As a matter of fact, they rarely are. I can’t tell you there is a rhyme or reason with which I use to select. It could be the tiniest thing about that book that would make it book of month. As long as I read it that month and I like it, it could very well make it into book of the month. I say all that because today’s book of the month is really old.

Now that necessary caveats are out of the way, I’m super excited about the book of this month. What a fantastic book. Wow, and if we are doing fiction of the year for this blog, this is hands down among the top three (His Only Wife and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine are great contenders too). This book, What Was She thinking by Zoë Heller, is about a lonely schoolteacher Barbarra Covett, a sixty-something-year old woman who led a very solitary life (no friends, no family) until Sheba Hart, a beautiful young woman, joins the school as the new art teacher. Barbara decides to become Sheba’s friend and after lunches and invitations to meals at Sheba’s home with her husband and kids, it looks like a friendship is formed. Except on the side, something else is brewing: Sheba begins an illicit and passionate affair with an underage male student. When this affair comes to light, Sheba finds herself thrust into a media sensation, and Barbara decides to write an account of the story. It is through this that so much—more than Barbara herself realizes—comes to light. 

What a beautifully written book. It’s written in first person (from the perspective of judgy, grumpy Barbara), which as any writer will tell you is quite the feat to achieve. Yet, Heller delivers this art masterfully. In so many ways, it’s a story of friendship, betrayal, passion, loneliness, envy, family, desperation and the intricacies of relationships. From the very first line of the book till the last page, you will be enthralled in the storytelling. There is a precision with which this book is written that allows you to understand characters and their motives even though it is written from only one point of view. The author was able to show people’s emotions through their characters and personalities. You will be vexed (almost wanting to smack certain characters through the pages of the book), you will laugh a little, and you will also empathize. One of the strongest underlying theme of this book, I think, is loneliness and what it does to you. How it devours you and destroys you. And as a theme, it’s completely subtle. 

I can’t think of something I didn’t like about the book. It’s interesting that the author took a subject matter as banal as a teacher having an inappropriate relationship with her student and turned it into a masterpiece like this. I just realized the book also has a movie and I’m doing all I can to get my hands on the film and see if it does the book any justice. Even without watching the movie, Heller describes an England you can feel and imagine as if being there as the book happens. And she does this without dragging us through minutia details of streets and roads and pathways the way last month’s book did. I feel like most people who didn’t like this book just didn’t like the main characters. And to me that’s not enough reason to not like a book. If anything, it shows what a great book the author has done. 

The one con you may find in this book is the way it ends. And to that end, I have decided to end this post almost as abruptly as the book ends. Haha.

Happy reading, people.



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