What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal

Barbara Covett, nearly retirement age, teaches at a mediocre school. She has few friends, partly because she doesn’t like many people and partly because few people seem to be able to give her the level of friendship she can offer them. But when Sheba Hart arrives to teach art, Barbara senses that they could be intimate. As their friendship develops, however, so does another relationship: Sheba has begun a shocking affair with a fifteen-year-old student. Barbara’s narration, wicked, satirical, misanthropic, keenly observant, and complex, frames these two relationships as they twine around each other.

Jenny: I have to say straight away that I loved this book. I am, as you know, a complete sucker for an unreliable narrator, for a tilty narrative that leaves me unsure precisely where I am, looking for clues. On the first page of this book, Barbara says, confidently, smugly, “We don’t have secrets, Sheba and I.” On page 9, she says, “Sheba doesn’t know yet about this project of mine [the narrative.] I fear it would only agitate her at the moment, so I’ve decided to keep it a secret until I’m a little further along.” Oh! My heart beat faster. From that point on, I knew the book would tell me as much or more about Barbara as it would about Sheba, and I was right.

Teresa: I saw the movie of this when it was in the theatre, long before I knew the book existed, and I loved it, so I knew I was in for something good here. From what I remember, the movie follows the book closely, with only a couple of variations that I found particularly significant. What struck me (and this is true of the film as well) is how my sympathies constantly shifted. Neither of these women is admirable, but there are moments when I felt sorry for each of them. The fact that we can’t entirely trust Barbara’s narrative only adds to the complication.

Jenny: That’s such a good point, and so unexpected from a book like this. Even from something this layered, I’d expect Barbara to show herself constantly in a “good” light that would turn out to be twisted and bad, and the reverse for Sheba. But that’s not the way it is. They both turn out to be very flawed human beings, nasty and generous and disappointing and passionate and controlling in just the way real people are.

One thing I was constantly asking myself was how much of what we were reading actually happened. Barbara admits in the first few pages that she didn’t witness any of the affair, and she says that Sheba romanticizes and rationalizes what she did. What really happened and what didn’t? So much of it has the ring of real truth, but of course it would. How much of it did Barbara simply invent, to aggrandize her own role in the events?

Teresa: That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? How much of the story can we believe? It’s entirely possible that even Sheba’s affair was manufactured as a way for Barbara to gain power over Sheba. The desire for power seems to be deeply rooted in Barbara’s personality (look at her educational philosophy, for example), so I wouldn’t put it past her.  In her narration, she’s honest enough to show herself doing cruel things, but she seems to feel herself justified in almost everything she does. She doesn’t see her shortcomings as shortcomings.

But I still felt kind of sorry for Barbara. Her position in society would make her feel invisible, and that can be painful. I could also easily understand her embarrassment at her own solitude—think of her not wanting to let anyone see her blank calendar. For some people, that solitude would be liberating, but for Barbara, who needs to connect so desperately, it’s a horror. And her fear makes her grasping and controlling.

Jenny: I felt sorry for her, too, even as I watched her alienate others with her nastiness and manipulation. (I think it was the episode with the cat that tipped the balance for me.) And I certainly didn’t have much sympathy for Sheba, either, who spent most of the book covering her own eyes (if Barbara is to be believed.)

I wondered what you’d think of this book, since the subject material (an affair with an underage student) is so similar to You Deserve Nothing, which you just reviewed. Obviously this doesn’t have a true story behind it, so there isn’t that complication! But I loved this book’s marvelous complexity of style, which lets us see all the passion and heartbreak and self-delusion of both — well, all three — characters. It reminded me strongly of Barbara Vine’s work, but without any murders.

Teresa: If I’m remembering correctly, the incident with the cat is quite different in the movie. I found Sheba’s behavior at that point much more upsetting in the book.

As you know, my opinion of You Deserve Nothing is colored by the allegations about the author, but even when I put my revulsion about that aside, I think this is a much better book. It’s more confident and assured. Maksik’s book felt more like a first novel, with the author trying too hard to show off how good a writer he is. Heller just tells the story and lets the readers discover the complexity and skill behind it.

Jenny: One thing that didn’t occur to me until after the book was over was how little Barbara allows us to feel sorry for the actual victim of the actual crime: Stephen Connolly, the student. She portrays him as the seducer, pursuing Sheba, and later she shows him dumping her, as if he were some accomplished Lothario. But of course even if there is a grain of truth in the pursuit, nothing can excuse Sheba’s criminal behavior. We don’t get enough of that fact, filtered through Barbara’s contempt for Connolly and sympathy for Sheba. We only get a glimpse of it through Connolly’s mother, and perhaps also reflected through Sheba’s daughter: what if someone had done the same to her?

Not to open up yet another can of worms, but didn’t you think class issues were really interesting in this book? Barbara acknowledges immediately that Sheba comes from a higher social class that she does, and she both admires that and resents it, especially in Sheba’s husband Richard. Connolly senses the difference, too. I thought the treatment of those questions was really well done.

Teresa: The class issues were interesting, as were the gender issues. At one point, Barbara talks about how different the whole thing would look if Sheba were a man having sex with a female student. Her analysis of why the reaction is so different seemed really smart to me, even if I didn’t agree with all her conclusions. But that’s what makes this book so good. You’ve got an unreliable, sometimes cruel narrator, who’s also intelligent and insightful. You remarked earlier that this book is as much about Barbara as it is about Sheba, and you’re spot on about that. You might even argue that the whole book is about Barbara, and Sheba exists only to reveal Barbara’s character. It’s a fascinating, absorbing novel that I’m glad to have finally read.

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13 Responses to What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal

  1. Harriet says:

    I read the book and saw the film and absolutely loved them both — a very rare occurrence in my experience. Nice discussion — I really enjoy this format on your blog — thanks.

  2. gaskella says:

    I too have read/seen both and loved them. That may have been several years ago, but it’s a book that stays with you. The way Barbara moves from friend to confidante and trusted ally, then betrayer and finally mother-figure and jail was gripping. She’s waited all her life to find a victim and she goes for it.

    • Jenny says:

      I kind of want to put scare quotes around all those terms. “Friend” and “confidante” and “trusted ally” — oh dear! The scene at the end with the sculpture was sheer genius. And I think the victimization went three ways!

  3. Kathleen says:

    Thank you both for sharing your opinions on this one. I’ve had it on my list for awhile and even had it checked out of the library at one point but never got around to reading it. I love unreliable narrators and know I need to move this one up my list!

    • Jenny says:

      If unreliable narrators appeal to you, this is a wonderful book. It feels effortless, each twist and turn cleverly revealing more. Highly recommended!

  4. Deb says:

    Having failed to finish Heller’s EVERYTHING YOU KNOW, which I found to be a dull book full of dreadful American Jewish stereotypes and obsessions with bodily functions, I would not have tried WHAT WAS SHE THINKING except for the insistence of a close friend whose opinion I trust. So I read it and I’m glad I did: it was an amazing book (I, too, love unreliable narrators), confident, assured, twisty, ambiguous (in a good way). I still find it hard to believe two books as different in style, substance, and quality as EVERYTHING YOU KNOW and WHAT WAS SHE THINKING were written by the same author.

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks for your (non)-recommendation of Everything You Know, Deb! I was really thinking about checking it out, since I liked this one so much, but I wasn’t sure. This definitely gives me more to think about!

  5. Deb says:

    One more comment: I think Barbara Covett’s name is symbolic–as in “Thou shalt not covet….” but she obviously does covet so much about Sheba’s life.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, I think it’s symbolic, too. And Sheba — Bathsheba — the famous woman who, depending on how you look at it, either was the innocent victim of King David’s lust or seduced him… that’s no accident, either!

  6. Steph says:

    I’m so glad you gals read and loved this one. I haven’t yet written up my run-down of 2011 yet, but this one is definitely at the top of my list in terms of favorite books I read last year. I find Heller to be such a strong, compelling writer, and while the subject material was certainly scintillating in its own right, I definitely think the story was all the more layered because of how delicious creepy (and unreliable) Barbara was!

  7. Gayle says:

    It has been a few years since I read this, but it was memorable, and I liked your discussion. Very good book.

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