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Love triangle in the class system

What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal, Zoe Heller, Henry Holt: 262 pp., $23

August 03, 2003|Heller McAlpin | Heller McAlpin is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

ZOE HELLER'S second novel takes an English school sex scandal involving salacious headlines and class consciousness and elevates it, with the aid of a self-deluding narrator and piercing observations, to a nuanced portrait of the power plays in unbalanced relationships.

"What Was She Thinking?" shares many qualities with Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day," not least its quintessential Britishness and a narrator leading a narrow existence who mourns the Good Old Days. Like Ishiguro's butler, Heller's narrator reveals more of herself than she intends in the story she tells. Barbara Covett, too, is a lonely, somewhat antiquated type who at first blush seems to be from central casting -- a pursed-lipped spinster schoolteacher in her early 60s whose only companion is a dying cat.

On the surface, her tale is about colleague Sheba Hart's torrid affair with a 15-year-old student. But the real focus of "What Was She Thinking?" is loneliness and misplaced love -- Sheba's for her adolescent student, and Barbara's for Sheba.

"Everything You Know," Heller's wickedly funny, slyly moving first novel, relayed the aftermath of a family scandal from the bitter perspective of a dyspeptic 55-year-old hack screenwriter, who may or may not have caused his wife's fatal drunken fall during an argument. Heller has again created a fully imagined narrator who bears scant resemblance to the hip persona she has projected in her columns for the London Sunday Times and the London Daily Telegraph, written from New York, where she has lived for the last 10 years. The common thread is vociferous opinions expressed fearlessly.

We've all known Barbara Covetts: sad, lonely, censorious people who specialize in thrusting themselves at others, trying to assume an importance and indispensability they never attain. Heller's narrator is at once barbed and covetous, as her name not so subtly suggests; she craves and repulses human contact. When tony 41-year-old Sheba shows up in her gauzy dresses of "floaty layers" to teach pottery to the "pubescent proles" at St. George's comprehensive school in North London, Barbara, who has been teaching history there for decades, marks her immediately as a potential replacement for former friends who managed to escape her chokehold.

When the novel opens, Sheba's affair with Steven Connolly has hit the tabloids, and her husband has kicked her out and barred her from their two children. She is free on bail, and Barbara has "stepped in" to pick up the pieces. She is in her element as distraught Sheba's caretaker. She decides to write a record of how they have come to this pass. "This is not a story about me," she announces, then adds in her typical, falsely humble, self-aggrandizing fashion, "But, since the task of telling it has fallen into my hands ...."

A first-person narration is only as compelling as its voice, and Heller's is pungently articulate, a rich mix of self-awareness and denial. Barbara knows the "drip, drip of long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude ... what it is to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the launderette." She describes St. George's as "a kind of hormonal soup" where the unruly students bide their time "until they can embrace their fates as plumbers and shop assistants." She adds, somewhat dubiously, "Even I, a woman in my early sixties and by common consent no oil painting, have been known to prick the testosteronal curiosity of my fifteen-year-old charges from time to time." She notes Sheba's anthropological fascination with Connolly, just as she acknowledges her own fascination with Sheba's clipped speech and "absolute, bourgeois confidence." Heller nails England's ever-important class striations in this unlikely love triangle.

And what of Barbara's account of Sheba's scandal, with lurid details of "shagging" behind the kiln and in the park that we suspect Barbara has fabricated? Voyeurism, vicarious pleasure or a more sinister impulse? Barbara parses moral issues and points out how hard it is to distinguish predator from victim: "Connolly was officially a minor, and Sheba's actions were, officially speaking, exploitative; yet any honest assessment of their relationship would have to acknowledge not only that Connolly was acting of his own volition but that he actually wielded more power in the relationship than Sheba."

To be sure, power leading to security is what Barbara seeks in her relationship with Sheba. She's the foul-weather friend forever waiting to swoop in after the storm but also hoping against hope that someday the tables will turn and Sheba's focus will be on her. Barbara Covett is Sheba's Linda Tripp -- the dowdy sympathetic ear and confidant who leaks her younger friend's secret.

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