Barbara Covett, the narrator of Zoe Heller’s What Was She Thinking? [Notes On A Scandal], is much like the actor in that old joke about “Hamlet". The actor was playing a gravedigger in the piece, and when asked what was about replied, “Oh, it’s about this gravedigger…”
Though she tells the story, Barbara is actually a minor character in the story itself. It is actually about Sheba, a teacher at the school where Barbara works, who begins an affair with a student. The book begins after Sheba has lost her job and family as a result of the affair, and seems on the brink of going to jail for sex with a minor..
But, inside of telling the story from Sheba’s angle, and lingering over the sordid details, Heller brilliantly takes Barbara’s point of view. In her mid-sixties and woefully lonely, Barbara latches onto the middle-aged, effervescent Sheba. She insinuates herself into friendship with Sheba and, lacking much else, makes the woman the center of her life.
Heller’s novel skillfully balances the two key relationships – Sheba and student and Sheba and Barbara – so that both get equal weight. She’s also careful to make Sheba a fully rounded character, despite the fact that Barbara has the reins of the story. Barbara may force herself into the spotlight, but it’s Sheba who holds most of the reader’s sympathy. Less of a sexual predator than a naïve, confused woman, Sheba, in Heller’s hands, is a woman who embarks on the affair not for sex, but for fulfillment.
Meanwhile, Barbara clearly disapproves of Sheba’s liaison, and often makes note of the fact that, had Sheba only listened to her, things would have turned out differently. Of course, the irony is that, without Sheba’s scandal to fill it up, Barbara’s life would be rather empty. A childless spinster, her own life certainly contains nothing scandalous, or even interesting. Without Sheba, she’s nothing, so Barbara sets about making herself indispensable, turning herself into a main character in Sheba’s life.
The result is a story that’s funny, clever and oddly poignant – a tale of two women both looking for something to make their life whole. In the end, though, it’s only Barbara who gets her wish. But then she wouldn’t have it any other way.