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Merle

Merle

Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] - Zoë Heller

This is indeed a literary page-turner, as described in the cover blurb. Barbara Covett, a lonely high school history teacher on the cusp of retirement and aching for meaningful human connections, fixates on a younger, wealthy art teacher, Sheba Hart. Sheba is a wife and mother with a busy social schedule who becomes sexually involved with a teenage boy at the school, leading to the eponymous scandal. The story is narrated by Barbara, in an engaging, perceptive, sometimes vicious voice; as is not uncommon for isolated people, especially intelligent ones, Barbara tends to look down on everyone.

 

As many others have said, this is an excellent novel: intense, insightful, clever, well-written. This could be a good novel for those who are leery of “literary fiction,” because it is also a very readable page-turner. Though of course it is not a novel for those only interested in reading about moral paragons; it presents its very flawed characters as they are, in all their complexity, not as we might want people to be. And the ambiguous, creepy ending does not tie up all plot threads.

 

A couple of points on interpretation:

 

First, a lot of people seem to want to read a homoerotic subtext into Barbara’s obsession with her female friends. To me this is just an example of modern culture wanting to see sex in everything, and tending to devalue platonic relationships, assuming that a high level of emotional investment must mean sexual desire is involved. There are indications throughout the book that Barbara is heterosexual (her envy of the young French woman who dances on a bar and captures all the men’s attention; her willingness to become romantically involved with a male teacher even though she finds him ridiculous). For someone as isolated as Barbara, the quest for emotional fulfillment and to be important to someone else is every bit as meaningful as the quest for sexual fulfillment is for others; sex just doesn’t seem to be high on her list of priorities, perhaps because she has more fundamental unmet needs.

 

Second, the takeaway from this book for many people seems to be “sexual abuse isn’t always clear-cut because sometimes the child can be the initiator!” To which I say, first of all, keep in mind that Barbara is an unreliable narrator; she is telling the story of Sheba’s “affair” with a teenager secondhand, based on what Sheba has told her, and then coloring Sheba’s self-serving account with her own opinions; she cares for Sheba and seems to detest Steven Connelly, who’s portrayed as a rough-hewn, vulgar lower-class boy. But Sheba’s sketchy behavior is still evident, for instance, in her threatening Steven to keep quiet about their relationship, claiming he too would get in trouble if found out even though she knows this not to be true. And more importantly, getting sexually involved with someone across that kind of power imbalance – someone so much younger over whom she is an authority figure – is wrong and lends itself to abuse even if the young person seems enthusiastic. Teenagers have crushes and fantasies about teachers – Barbara comments on this herself – but that isn’t license for adults to act on them for their own sexual gratification; teenagers aren’t emotionally ready for adult relationships, and those fantasies should remain fantasies.

 

Reading between the lines, it makes sense that Sheba doesn’t understand this boundary; she began dating her husband, a professor 20 years her senior, when she was a young college student (and there’s some indication in the book that 20 years on, he’s still angling for college students). And she seems oblivious to the power imbalance in her own marriage – the way the housework all falls on her shoulders, for instance. So it’s no wonder that her boundaries would be skewed. But her flawed perceptions shouldn’t justify this behavior in readers’ minds.

 

At any rate, this is definitely a book I recommend, as a work of literary entertainment that lived up to the hype. It didn’t change my life, but it’s absolutely worth the read.