Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

Best days of our lives…

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When Sheba Hart joins the staff of St George’s school, history teacher Barbara Covett finds herself fascinated by the younger woman – a fascination that borders on obsession. Sheba, we soon discover, is no stranger to obsession herself, only her obsession is more dangerous. She has developed a sexual passion for one of her pupils, 15-year-old Steven Connolly. Barbara tells us the story – her version of it, at least – so we learn right from the beginning that Sheba’s affair has been discovered…

This is an intensely readable book, short and taut, and with a wonderful narrator in Barbara who is really the star of the show even though it’s Sheba’s story she’s ostensibly telling. In the early stages she tells us about the life of an inner-city school in a not particularly salubrious area of London, and the picture she paints is insightful and feels authentic, and is full of humour. It’s a kind of battle-ground – teachers vs. pupils, and also teachers vs. management. Barbara is nearing the end of her career and any idealism she may once have had is long gone – by her own account she is competent, but cynical, with low expectations of what any teacher can hope to achieve beyond maintaining discipline and getting through the day.

Sheba is the opposite. Although approaching middle-age this is her first job as a pottery teacher and she still believes she will be able to mould young minds to share her passion for art. She receives a rude awakening when her teenage pupils scent the weakness that comes with inexperience and set out to torment her. This provides an opening for Barbara to insert herself into Sheba’s life as a kind of wise mentor. But it also leaves Sheba vulnerable to the one pupil who shows a mild interest in art, and a much stronger interest in Sheba herself – Steven Connolly. As Sheba becomes ever more embroiled in this inappropriate relationship, Barbara becomes her only confidante.

I enjoyed Barbara’s twisted character very much. A single woman living alone with her cat (hmm… who does that remind me of? 👵😼), she is lonely and we gradually learn that she seems to have great talent for alienating friends who then become enemies. Is she a closeted lesbian? Perhaps. But if she is, it’s not clear whether she’s aware of it. Her obsession with Sheba borders on the sexual, and she certainly seems jealous of both Sheba’s husband and her youthful lover. But her own account is that she is simply looking for a friend. Barbara’s idea of friendship is extreme, however – she resents all other claims on Sheba’s time, and we see her attempt to manipulate herself into a position where she is the one person Sheba depends on. If Barbara wasn’t such an awful person, it would be easy to feel sorry for her. But I didn’t!

Book 17 of 20

I have to admit I didn’t find the rest of the characters quite as believable. The main problem was that I simply couldn’t see what would possibly have attracted attractive Sheba to this rather uncouth teenager. He doesn’t sound like a physical hunk, and he’s certainly not a smooth-talking flatterer. Is it simply that he shows his interest in her? But if Sheba is as attractive as Barbara leads us to believe she must be used to male flattery, and if she wanted an affair she could surely have found someone with more going for him than poor Steven! (Yes, I know these things happen in real life, but this one didn’t convince me.) Putting my disbelief to one side, however, it’s a wonderful depiction of self-delusion as Sheba convinces herself and tries to convince Barbara that this is more than sex – it’s love. Barbara’s cynicism on that point is equal to my own!

Sheba’s family are rather stock characters – the unsuspecting husband with a not-unchequered past of his own; the surly teenage daughter going off the rails; the son with Downs Syndrome who needs a lot of love and attention; the disapproving mother who feels her daughter has under-achieved in life. They exist, mostly, simply for the reader to feel that Sheba is betraying them – somehow her sin wouldn’t have seemed quite so sinful had she been free of family ties.

Zoë Heller

And on the subject of sin, that’s the book’s other deliciously twisted strength. I wonder if anyone would have the courage now to write a book suggesting that the boy was as manipulative as the woman? Of course we only see Steven through Barbara’s unreliable eyes, but it does seem as if he merely wants a bit of sexual experience with a “hot” teacher – there’s little of the victim about him. He’s a disgusting little oik, to be honest – or is he? Do I think that because Barbara thinks it? Is he really a male Lolita, preyed on by a paedophile? The law would certainly say so. Heller uses Barbara cleverly to show us only one side of the story – Barbara’s. This makes it an ambiguous read. Why really did Sheba become obsessed? What impact did it all have on Steven? By not telling us, Heller avoids preachiness and leaves each reader to make her own moral judgements.

A rather lighter read than the subject matter suggests, I’m not sure there’s really much profundity here or much depth of insight into what brings these situations about. However, the wonderful characterisation of Barbara carries it, and while perhaps not quite as thought-provoking as it might have been, I certainly enjoyed listening to it, especially since the audiobook narrator, Jilly Bond, did an excellent job of bringing Barbara’s voice to life.

Audible UK Link

23 thoughts on “Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

  1. Oh, this does sound like a fascinating story from a psychological viewpoint, FictionFan! And I know exactly what you mean by the different sorts of attitudes these teachers have. I see that all the time in my work, and it sounds as though that’s captured well here. Even if not all of the characters are believable, I can see how you’d get drawn into the story. I have a soft spot for a school as a setting, too…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I thought she did all the teaching staff well, from the young idealists up to the budget conscious management, but especially Barbara! She reminded me of teachers of my own, whose presence alone was enough to ensure discipline and attention in a class. Never could quite see what it was that made some of them able to quell forty teenagers with a single quizzical eyebrow while others got treated with absolute scorn! What horrible people children are! 😉

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  2. You’ve certainly made me curious about this one…. but not enough to put it on my wishlist. 😉

    I think you’re going to complete the challenge!! (you’re almost there!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think I’ve done a good job of selling this one! The film is excellent – I actually preferred it to the book, I think.

      I will! I’ll finish the second last book today, and then there’s just a final Agatha to go! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, I can barely remember what books I’m currently reading, much less what films I watched years ago! 😉 However, the film of this one is great. I’m a big Judi Dench fan, and she made a wonderful Barbara… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it’s a story that pops up here now and again too, though usually male teachers and female pupils. Somehow we still see that as worse than a female teacher with a boy, though we probably shouldn’t, I suppose…

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    • I’ve only read one Highsmith – Strangers on a Train – and yes, there’s a similarity in the concentration on the psychology of the characters. To be honest I preferred this one – much tauter and with some welcome humour! In both cases I think I preferred the film though…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved Notes on a Scandal but like you, couldn’t understand why a middle-aged woman got involved with a teenage boy. I remember thinking that all of the characters were, to some extent, predatory. I also read The Believers by Zoe Heller and thought it was good, but there wasn’t a single likeable character in the whole book.

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    • Yes, no one comes out of it well! I’d love to hear Sheba’s side of the story. I can just about imagine a young teacher falling for an older teen, but having worked with teenage boys as a middle-aged woman I honestly fail to see the attraction! 😉 She doesn’t seem to have written many novels, so since she’ll be going on my Looking Forward to list I’ll follow your tip and go for The Believers. I don’t mind unlikeable characters so long as they’re interesting…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I’ve never understood why a grown woman would be attracted to a teenage boy. Somehow it seems more believable the other way round – a man attracted to a girl – but I fear that probably says more about how I’ve been influenced by the general sexism of society than anything else! Barbara is a wonderfully twisted character, though. 😀

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    • Thank you! I loved Judi Dench’s portrayal of Barbara! Actually I think I preferred the film marginally, but the book is well worth reading – hope you enjoy it if you go for it sometime! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I like the fact that the author leaves it up to interpretation, it makes the book so much more enjoyable and thoughtful. This does sound like a bit of a dark read, but I believe that humour can be inserted into all of this, as schools are strange places at the best of times.

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    • There’s a lot of humour in this, and it steers away from really delving into the relationship between the teacher and the pupil, so it’s quite emotionally light, I felt, despite the subject matter. Mostly it’s a great character study of Barbara, the older teacher.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I must admit this is one case where I actually preferred the film. Probably because I saw it first, but also because I’m a big fan of Judi Dench and thought she was brilliant as Barbara. The book is well worth reading too, though.

      Liked by 1 person

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