WHAT WAS SHE THINKING? NOTES ON A SCANDAL by Zoë Heller
Genre: Fiction and Literature
How Acquired: BookCrossing
Reading Began: February 21, 2005
Completed Reading: February 26, 2005
Overall rating: Five out of ten
Recommendation to others: If curiosity gets the best of you, go ahead and read this book. Otherwise, it’s not entirely satisfying and the book jacket’s claim of “gripping” is completely overstated.
Why I chose to read this book: I remember reading a good review somewhere, but by the time I actually acquired a copy, I couldn’t recall what drew me to it. It’s a case of having wished for something so long, you can’t remember why you wanted it in the first place.
Other titles by this author: Heller has also written Everything You Know, her debut novel, but the premise tells of such an unappealing character that I don’t believe I’m quite ready to visit another Heller novel. I get a feeling of grit that just doesn’t wash off easily.
Comments: The book itself is fine, fairly good in fact. The story is intriguing, and the author has enough talent to keep me interested in the plot. But Notes on a Scandal just made me feel … blech. The characters are irritatingly obnoxious, conniving, bitter, and childish, and I truly couldn’t wait to finish the story just to be rid of them. I suppose that’s an accomplishment for Zoë Heller, but it’s disturbing for me as the reader. I’m not accustomed to—and perhaps not willing to accept—characters who make me despise them, who are fully pathetic and have no redeeming qualities, and when I do run across them in my reading, I tend to avoid that author’s work in the future. I can’t say I’ll do that in this case, but I doubt that this book will hold any place in my heart. It’s simply another title crossed off the list.
Such do-gooding fantasies are not uncommon in comprehensive schools these days. Many of the younger teachers harbour secret hopes of ‘making a difference.’ They have all seen the American films in which lovely young women tame inner-city thugs with recitations of Dylan Thomas. They, too, want to conquer their little charges’ hearts with poetry and compassion. When I was at teacher training college there was none of this sort of thing. My fellow students and I never thought of raising self-esteem or making dreams come true. Our expectations did not go beyond guiding our prospective pupils through the three Rs and providing them with some pointers on personal hygiene. Perhaps we were lacking in idealism. But then it strikes me as not coincidental that in the same period that pedagogical ambitions have become so inflated and grandiose, the standards of basic literacy and numeracy have radically declined. We might not have fretted much about our children’s souls in the old days, but we did send them out knowing how to do long division. Chapter Two (pp. 27-28)
It is a great challenge for me not to place inordinate emphasis on this sort of occasion. Any break in my routine — any small variation in the sequence of work and grocery shopping and telly and so on — tends to take on a disproportionate significance. I’m a child in that respect: able to live, psychically speaking, on a crumb of anticipation for weeks at a time, but always in danger of crushing the waited-for event with the freight of my excessive hope. Chapter Six (p. 95)
Being alone is not the most awful thing in the world. You visit your museums and cultivate your interests and remind yourself how lucky you are not to be the one of those spindly Sudanese children with flies beading their mouths. You make out To Do lists — reorganize linen cupboard, learn two sonnets. You dole out little treats to yourself — slices of ice-cream cake, concerts at Wigmore Hall. And then, every once in a while, you wake up and gaze out of the window at another bloody daybreak, and think, I cannot do this any more. I cannot pull myself together again and spend the next fifteen hours of wakefulness fending off the fact of my own misery.
People like Sheba think that they know what it’s like to be lonely. They cast their minds back to the time they broke up with a boyfriend in 1975 and endured a whole month before meeting someone new. Or the week they spent in a Bavarian steel town when they were fifteen years old, visiting their greasy-haired German pen-pal and discovering that her hand-writing was the best thing about her. But about the drip drip of long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing. They don’t know what it is to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the launderette. Or to sit in a darkened flat on Halloween night, because you can’t bear to expose your bleak evening to a crowd of jeering trick-or-treaters. Or to have the librarian smile pityingly and say, ‘Goodness, you’re a quick reader!’ when you bring back seven books, read cover to cover, a week after taking them out. They don’t know what it is to be so chronically untouched that the accidental brush of a bus conductor’s hand on your shoulder send a jolt of longing straight to your groin. I have sat on park benches and tubes and schoolroom chairs, feeling the great store of unused, objectless love sitting in my belly like a stone until I was sure I would cry out and fall, flailing, to the ground. About all of this, Sheba and her like have no clue. Chapter Thirteen (pp. 186-187)