Friday, November 25, 2005

What Was She Thinking: Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller

Does anyone remember the strange case of MaryKay Letourneau, the 31-year old Washington State teacher who went to prison for seducing a 7th grader? When it happened it made huge waves in the media and sparked an idea for a story in author's Zeo Heller's mind.

"Notes on a Scandal" by Zoe Heller, but titled as "What Was She Thinking" in the US, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2003 and I have to confess that it surprises me that it was. After all, this novel wasn't ground-breaking in a literary sense, but it was a very creative story exploring social taboos and heavy-duty feelings like obsession, loneliness, jealousy and so on.

On to the characters: Bathsheba Hart is a 41-year old pottery teacher in a High School in England. She's married with two kids: one surly teenage girl named Polly and a mentally disabled 10-year old boy called Ben. She is very cultured in the arts and married to an older academic named Richard. She has always hob-nobbed with people from academia so when she arrives at this new school in a working class neighborhood she is rather disappointed that none of the students seem to show an interest in the arts. Steven Connolly, a 15-year old boy, is the only exception and very soon she is meeting him after class to talk with him about Degas, Monet, Manet etc. We are told that soon these discussions progress to trysts behind the pottery kiln and secret rendezvous in Hampstead Heath.

I find it unusual that although the author chose to use a first person narrative in this novel, the narrator she chose wasn't the teacher (Sheba) or the boy (Steven), but rather a colleague and friend of the teacher, a 61-year old spinster and history teacher named Barbara Covett...

Barbara Covett is a hard person to like. In the book she comes across as lonely, possessive, insecure, facetious, judgmental, controlling and manipulating. But perhaps having a thoroughly dislikable narrator is what makes the story so unusual! Had the author chosen to write the story from either Sheba's or Steven's point of view we might have ended up with a mundane story with fairly predictable perspectives.

Barbara likes to say that because Sheba belonged to the upper strata of society , she was fascinated with people that belonged to the working class and that her interest in the boy Steven was purely anthropological to begin with. Steven Connolly, the boy in question, the teacher's pet, is like most adolescent boys---he needs no real reason for wanting to sleep with his teacher, Sheba, other than a bad case of hormones in overdrive. Infact,when the press got wind of the affair and they caught sight of Steven on his doorstep, they asked him why he did it, his response was: "Well, I fancied her, didn't I?"

After the press hauls Sheba over the coals over her indiscretion, Barbara befriends and mothers Sheba when no one else is on her side. "Notes on a Scandal" is Barbara's retelling of what happened, detailing scenes she couldn't have possibly witnessed but claims to have been retold so many times that she may as well have been there. As Barbara tells Sheba's story she inadvertently exposes her own life---her loneliness, her dashed dreams making us realize she is just one terribly bitter, lonely, old spinster.

The main thrust of the story, as you will tell from the title, is about a very inappropriate friendship/affair between a teacher and a student, but astonishingly, the friendship between Barbara and Sheba, especially how Barbara seems to feel about Sheba, sometimes comes across as the more disturbing of the two. The very fact that the author can make the reader feel that the narrator's relationship with Sheba is more 'interesting' than the scandal , is a testament to the power and creativity of her writing.

This book gives you a lot of meat to chew on. There is the most obvious discussion on why it is that when older men seduce younger girls, they are known as predators but when an older woman seduces a younger boy, she is merely laughed at? Is it because she is an aberration? Or is it because we see young boys as being less in danger of being emotionally abused by these experiences than our young girls? Also, is it even more perverse when the woman involved is a teacher? After all, we expect teachers to set a moral example, but to be fair to them, we all know that with raging hormones, high schools can be natural hotbeds for flirtations and secret passions. It might even be considered part of growing up to develop a crush on a teacher. What happens when a teacher is actively pursued by one of her charges and she succumbs?

There is also the topic of friendship. Was the friendship between Barbara and Sheba a good one or just creepy? When someone does you a huge favor, do you have to spend your entire lifetime being grateful and obligated to your benefactor ?

This book also touches on the famous or rather infamous, British class system. Does such a thing exist in North America? I think it does, but it hinges on wealth and power, whereas in Britain, it usually has to do with birth, education and family name.

This book is soon to be made into a movie, where the talented Dame Judi Dench will star as Barbara Covett and the beautiful Cate Blanchett as Bathsheba Hart. I can't wait!