I don’t usually see the movie and then read the book, but after reading Zoe Heller’s incredible character work in The Believers I had to read What Was She Thinking?, which was made into the Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett award-winning indie hit, Notes on a Scandal.
I was sucked into the immediate and slightly off schoolmarm voice of our deliciously unreliable narrator, Barbara. In her opinionated and hilarious voice, she tells us plainly that children are not to be trusted, her co-workers are all hopeless, that she is a staunch disciplinarian, and that she knows better about things than any character she encounters. We also learn early on, in her matter-of-fact tone, that the repressed Barbara is prone to obsessive friendships that frighten away her female friends.
I was startled to find myself suddenly intimate with her, like one of those friends. Barbara is like that wicked-minded girlfriend at school that you’re not sure it’s okay to hang out with, except that she’s funny and has good gossip. To read Barbara is to be in collusion with her, which makes the story she has to tell that much more startling and absorbing.
The book opens with a shock, as Barbara recounts Sheba telling her of how the 16-year old Connolly, her student with whom she had an affair, smelled differently from the other boys. It is a sexually charged thought, which is at the same time nauseating — Connolly is, in many ways, still a child. I tend to dislike shocking openers, especially when told in psychological thrillers to provide a selling sting, but it serves this book well. The moment isn’t theatrical, it is told matter-of-factly in Barbara’s unwavering voice. This is Barbara; we know where she stands and we know she has the inside scoop on a hot scandal. I fell for Barbara, and by the end of this section, with a slightly sick feeling, I read on.
Heller doesn’t stray from Barbara’s voice throughout the book as she reveals herself to be more human, but creepier. She will be Sheba’s savior and she waits quietly as a cat — “I’m good at waiting” — for Sheba’s life to fall to pieces around her so that she can step in.
Heller is enviably clever with the all-too-human moments, from Barbara’s high-heeled shoes pinching her to the point of bleeding, to the fact that Sheba has romanticized what is sex with a minor, and that she has turned a blind eye to how ugly the relationship is. I particularly loved one telling scene when Sheba and Connolly sneak into his parent’s house, which is clearly pedestrian in comparison to Sheba’s posh life with her husband. Heller uses details from the home — the carpeting, the art on the walls, the extreme tidiness, the new furniture and the heartbreaking working-class boyness of Connolly’s shimmery rainbow-dappled bedspread. Connolly’s dialogue is as inept as that of any sixteen-year old boy, and we wonder in horror as Sheba ruins her life and future — just for sex.
Barbara is the star of this affair, running her own gamut of emotions over her need for Sheba as their lives become inextricably entwined; Barbara searching for human companionship in her loneliness, Sheba finding relief in a confidante. And it is Barbara, in a moment of spite, who becomes Sheba’s downfall, telling of Sheba’s affair to a co-worker. Our dodgy heroine, in all of her confidence in us and her sympathy for Sheba, shows her true colors when we realize that she isn’t sorry at all. Barbara finally has the ideal woman who needs her and a scandalous book to write.
And while I knew that my untrustworthy, hilarious but gossipy new friend Barbara had issues, I felt betrayed by her as well. I love how Heller not only led me on an emotional journey, but made me an active part of it.