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.