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Of Letters and of Sciences

Welcome! This is a blog about literature and books that are critical to any social discourse: literary, cultural, racial, gender-based. A blog for humanists, scholars, the curious, and thinkers and thinkeresses.

Notes on a Scandal

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

I kind of hated this book when I first read it, but even then I couldn't deny that it was, of course, very well-written.


Actually, I kind of (to use a phrase from HBO's GIRLS, which I never thought I would) "love-hate-read" this book. I was really interested in the premise, but I thought the execution and the endless soliloquies of the lonely Barbara became tiresome.


BUT. BUT BUT BUT. The movie (which I think is really quite good) got me re-interested in it and, because the movie relied a lot on text from the book, I reexamined my feelings on it.

The book really is very good. I kind of took for granted the themes it voraciously explores: loneliness, connection. It's less about the teacher-student sex scandal (in fact, it's really not about that at all, which can be confusing) and more about "the exquisite and painful loneliness" of one woman; the utter solitude this older teacher feels. As she writes faithfully in her diary and pets her cat, Portia, she has nothing to do but ruminate in her own mind. There's a scene in the movie in which Judi Dench (portraying the older character) says (paraphrasing the book): that Sheba (younger teacher) knows nothing of the utter solitude of Barbara's life; she does not know what it's like to build excitement over an entire weekend over one appointment with the hairdresser just because one is able to leave the house. She does not know what it's like to be "chronically untouched" so that even the accidental brush of someone's hand against yours when exchanging money sends some kind of jolt of human recognition through you. (This isn't necessarily sexual---it's just human contact).


Anyway, the book is more a fabulous study of solitude and loneliness and interpersonal need. It's a FABULOUS character study of Barbara, the "lonely woman" (I'm reminded of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, which I never finished reading). It is not, however, a successful portrayal or explanation of why a grown female teacher sexually abuses her teenage student. (Also, let it be said that part of the titillation factor with this book/movie was that it was a female sex offender and a male teenager. People seem to think this configuration is less "predatory" than that of male sex offenders and younger teenage girls. "But he, as a teenage boy, pursued her!" they say. I'm sticking to the firm and fast truth that it doesn't matter if a teenager strips naked and tries to sit on an adult's lap--kids don't know what they're doing, and, at the very least, they cannot consent to sex with a legal adult. So there's that.)


Anyway. This is a very insightful book---just not for what it's marketed. It's really a close character study of feelings and intimacy, not a racy book about a sex scandal. In fact, "Notes on a Scandal" is a much better title than "What Was She Thinking?" because the book never tells us what Sheba was thinking and doesn't concern itself with that. The book's scope almost considers Sheba's abuse of her student "beneath the story": it wants to tell Barbara's tale of solitude and longing; and, in that, it succeeds superlatively.


Definitely read! If you want well-written words, utter wit, and the comfortably wonderful and sharp writing to which we bibliophiles are accustomed, give it a read!