Friday, April 24, 2009

What Was She Thinking? (Notes On a Scandal) by Zoe Heller

About midway through the story of teacher Sheba Hart’s illicit romance with one of her teenage students, she confesses to the narrator of the story, her friend Barbara Covett, what motivated her:

“But the truth is, Barbara, doing that kind of thing is easy. You know how you sometimes have another drink even though you know you’re going to have a hangover tomorrow? Or, or, you take a bite of a doughnut, even though you know it’s going straight to your thighs? Well, it’s like that. You keep saying No, no, no until the moment when you say, Oh bugger it. Yes.”

My experience with “The Believers” sent me on to Heller’s second novel, which proved to be every bit as entertaining. Many may be more familiar with the Oscar-nominated movie starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench, but no movie could do justice to this book. It’s one of those tightly-written mini-masterpieces that British authors are so annoying at producing like we churn out bad talk shows. When I wasn’t reminded of Ian McEwan by the flawless style, I was reminded of the great Russian authors in the book’s moral vision.

The story is familiar to anyone who reads the news. A good looking, married teacher, a mother to several children, suddenly attaches an unhealthy fascination on a young man in her classroom. Heller adds on a few details unique to the British setting, such as how Sheba’s upbringing and class consciousness might have played a part. But she adds to this tale the figure of Barbara, one of the most unreliable narrators in literary history. It is Sheba’s misfortune to play out her role in the gaze of a lonely, thoroughly obsessed colleague.

Actually, it’s unfair to describe Barbara as unreliable. Indeed, she meticulously records her life as an unmarried woman lurching toward oblivion in harrowing detail. The key, though, is the understated, desperate detachment that resounds as she gives selected peeks into her life, as it exists apart from Sheba. What upsets us beyond the way Barbara veritably stalks Sheba is how desperate she is for someone, anyone, to take an interest in her.

But as her confession above demonstrates, Sheba learns a little bit about the nature of sin in the course of her romance, after it blows up in the tabloid press and threatens to send her to prison. One of the pleasures of this novel is to watch Sheba, through Barbara’s eyes, delude herself as her interest in a young man crosses a series of uncertain lines, until she realizes the distance she has traveled from conscientious teacher to reckless lover. There is a part of us all that doesn’t care when we cross the line, and we are painfully aware of where that line is. The justifications we use last only long enough for the line to be breached. In the end, we are proud of what we do, even when we know it is morally reprehensible.

At first blush, when confronted with this kind of story in the news, we quickly pass judgment and we want swift punishment. But the novel reminds us that within this relationship are thousands of questions - who is in control, the older woman or the young man? At what point does a wife slightly bored with the conventional nature of her marriage suddenly become a vamp preying on the young? "A woman who interferes with a minor is not a symptom of an underlying tendency. She is an aberration. People don't see themselves, or their own furtive desires, in her." At what point, simply, does evil become “evil?”

When Barbara tells the reader, toward the end, that “the time we have spent here has been terribly sad, of course. But terribly intense too and even wonderful in its way,” she might as well be talking about the lives of these characters, and the character of our lives.

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