Tuesday, January 16, 2007

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

(hb; 2003)

From the inside flap:

“Schoolteacher Barbara Covett has led a solitary existence; aside from her cat, Portia, she has few friends, and no intimates. When Sheba Hart joins St. George’s as the new art teacher Barbara senses the possibility of a friendship. It begins with lunches and continues with regular invitations to meals with Sheba’s seemingly close-knit family. But as their relationship develops, another does as well: Sheba has begun a passionate affair with an underage male student. And when it comes to light and Sheba falls prey to the inevitable media circus, Barbara decides to write an account in her friend’s defense – an account that reveals not only an unwitting Sheba’s secrets, but her own.”


Barbara Covett, aptly surnamed, provides a first-person narrative for this story of supposed friendship and public scandal. Plenty of words describe Barbara – hyper-critical, parasitic, petty – as she stalks (from a quiet distance) Sheba, who may be too much of “free spirit” for her own good. When Sheba becomes friends with her, Barbara’s motives and actions turn creepier, culminating in an masterful, understated finish that left this reader shuddering in revulsion.

Heller – through Barbara’s eyes and voice – has crafted an incisive, minutiae-mindful tale that echoes the unsettling elements of Fatal Attraction (minus the grisly shrieks, tacky coitus and bodies).

Worth reading, this.

This became a film in 2006, titled Notes on a Scandal. Judi Dench played Barbara Covett. Cate Blanchett played Bathsheba (“Sheba”) Hart. Bill Nighy played Richard Hart, Sheba’s husband. Richard Eyre directed. Patrick Marber scripted.

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