A Novel Approach to Scandal: Arch Commentary on Taboo Sex

What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal , by Zoë Heller. Henry Holt, 258 pages, $23.

Who is Bathsheba Hart? The concise answer is delivered at the very beginning of Zoë Heller’s highly addictive second novel: “She is the forty-two-year-old pottery teacher recently charged with indecent assault on a minor after being discovered having a sexual affair with one of her students-a boy who was fifteen years old when the affair began.” A more circuitous answer emerges only gradually from the narrative supplied by one of Sheba Hart’s colleagues, Barbara Covett. A caustic spinster at once delightful and deeply sinister, Barbara is Sheba’s self-appointed “caretaker” and our guide to the “sexual affair” that became a tabloid sensation and wrecked the pottery teacher’s otherwise comfortable, unexceptional North London existence. It’s Barbara who has compiled these “Notes on a Scandal,” and Barbara’s question that supplies the novel’s title, What Was She Thinking? Of course, it’s the wrong question: The immaculately repressed, terrifyingly intense Barbara should be asking, “What was she feeling?”

A married female schoolteacher, a “wispy,” big-eyed beauty, sleeps with her yellow-haired, “plump-lipped” student-that’s a premise Zoë Heller, a magazine journalist and newspaper columnist, could have exploited in any number of ways, from the pornographic to the grossly sentimental to the stridently political. Instead, she has fashioned a funny, unnerving, acutely intelligent novel of psychological suspense. We know what happened right away; thereafter we’re concerned with motive, mysteries of the head and heart, and in order to come up with any answers, we have to read against the grain of Barbara’s arch commentary. When she tells us early on that “Sheba’s testimony regarding her conduct is not always entirely reliable,” it should serve as a double warning: Barb Covett and Sheba Hart, both aptly named, are both in their way unreliable.

A reader confronted with this kind of slippery narrative needs to hang onto something solid, and luckily, it’s right there on every page: The fastidious Barbara is clear-eyed about everyone but herself, and the details that she registers fix the novel in a recognizable, verifiable world, a contemporary urban landscape peopled with instantly plausible characters. In the staff room of St. George’s, a rough school by any standard (a “holding pen for … pubescent proles,” in Barbara’s acid judgment), we’re treated to a glimpse of a female teacher’s armpit-”violently pink, as if inflamed, and speckled with black stubble”-that sets the standard for unflinching and hypercritical observation. Barbara, who teaches history, is after “maximum accuracy.” Ms. Heller makes believers out of us-even as she stokes our skepticism.

Is it still a love triangle if the three sides never meet? Sheba and Steven Connolly certainly “fornicate” (to borrow Barb’s term)-at least 20 times in the bushes of Hampstead Heath-but it seems safe to say that their affair is a clash of two incompatible fantasies, his erotic, adolescent (he tells the tabloids, “I fancied her, didn’t I?”), hers hopelessly romantic, complex and perhaps partly maternal. Sheba has two children, one an odious, stubbornly rebellious 17-year-old girl, the other an 11-year-old boy with Down syndrome-in other words, one is utterly unwilling to express affection, the other is sweet but limited by his handicap. Her husband Richard is older than she is, a self-satisfied and condescending academic, yet by no means a bad man. If, as Sheba tells Barbara, “Things fall asleep in a marriage,” those alfresco trysts wake them right up. Here’s Barbara’s terse summary: “I think it is safe to say that she found the physical side of their relationship satisfactory.” The victim first of temptation, then of delusion; Sheba is good-hearted, weak-willed and fuzzy-headed.

Though she wouldn’t admit it to herself, Barbara is in love with Sheba. It’s not an erotic attachment, but it’s plenty powerful all the same. “Lonely” doesn’t begin to describe her isolation before she and Sheba become friends. The first time she’s invited to the Hart’s house-for a simple family supper-she wears a new pair of high-heeled sandals bought especially for the occasion; the straps cut into her ankle and she bleeds. That trickle of blood is as eloquent as Barbara’s typical understatement: “I am not a casual person.” One notes from the beginning something avid and a little louche about Barbara’s growing interest in her new colleague. She’s clearly envious of the warm bustle of the Hart household, and she’s excessively conscious, it seems, of social class (“Sheba is the only genuinely upper-class person I’ve ever known,” she says; and also, “Until she met Connolly, Sheba had never had any intimate contact with a bona fide member of the British proletariat”). But her disturbing quirks are more than made up for by the fact that she refuses to condemn Sheba on moral grounds: “It is mad to describe a middle-aged adulteress as innocent, and yet there is something fundamentally innocent about Sheba.”

Has she done any harm? Connolly remains something of a cipher, which seems right: Essentially he’s unformed, still a boy. When the affair is exposed, his mother goes ballistic (there’s a horrible, hilarious scuffle in the foyer of the Hart home: “The contact lasted only a few seconds, but when Richard pulled Mrs. Connolly off, she was holding a surprisingly large amount of Sheba’s hair in her hand”), and the London press explodes with jubilant sanctimony-but actually there’s no hint that the kid has been in any way damaged. Barbara insists that “He’s had a rather thrilling ride.”

But what really matters, in this novel about what the law considers “indecent assault on a minor” (Sheba’s brave retort: “There was no assault and I’ve done nothing indecent”), is not the hot topic of a taboo sexual relationship, but the legally safe and psychically perilous bond between a housewife turned pottery teacher and a bitter, envious spinster. Zoë Heller, master manipulator of these two flawed creatures, manages by the end of her novel to achieve an impressive feat: So hooked are we by her story, so engrossed by Barbara’s tightening grip on Sheba, that we lose track of the scandal’s looming consequence: the distinct possibility that Sheba will be sent to jail. And-even more impressive a tribute to the sympathy with which Ms. Heller has drawn her characters-we worry about what’s next, should Sheba Hart end up in prison: What will happen to the appalling Barbara Covett when she once again finds herself all alone?

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.