What was she thinking?

is the title of a novel by Zoë Heller that I just finished. The fictionalized story of a 40-year old female teacher at a London high school who has a sexual relationship with a 15-year old boy, it’s told from the point of view of an acerbic, older woman teacher, in the school. Barbara’s observations are unsparing. For example, her description of the school:

“St. George’s is the holding pen for Archway’s pubescent proles–the children of the council estates who must fidget and scrap here for a minimum of five years until they can embrace their fates as plumbers and shop assistants….  Many of the younger reachers harbour secret hopes of ‘making a difference.’ They have all seen their American films in which lovely young women tame innercity thugs with recitations of Dylan Thomas. They, too, want to conquer their little charges’ hearts with poetry and compassion.”

As to how the affair happened, she has the offending teacher, Sheba, explain: “You know how you sometimes have another drink even though you know you’re going to have a hangover tomorrow? Or, or, you take a bite of a doughnut even though you know it’s going straight to your thighs? Well, it’s like that. You keep saying No, no, until the moment when you say, Oh bugger it. Yes.”

But I think what impressed me most of all was her description of tBarbara’s loneliness:

“When you live alone, your furnishings, your possessions, are always confronting you with the thinness of your existence. You know with painful accuracy the provenance of everything you touch and the last time you touched it. The five little cushions on your sofa stay plumped and leaning at their jaunty angle for months at a time unless you theatrically muss them. The level of the salt in your shaker decreases at the same excruciating rate, day after day…  People like Sheba think they know what its like to be lonely….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…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 sends a jolt of longing straight to your groin. I have sat on park benches and trains and school room 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.”

The story is told as the Barbara’s diary of events, written after the fact. It makes a pretty interesting read. It was made into a movie about five years ago, “Notes on a Scandal,” With Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench. Great acting, but the book was better.

This was the first book I’ve read on the Kindle–I borrowed my daughter’s for the trip to see how I’d like it. I also read Sharon Old’s new book of poems, Stag’s Leap. Though I’m really a book-loving person, I found the Kindle handy for travel and it acceptable for the novel. I liked being able to bookmark sections and make notes.  It didn’t work at all for the poems. I need to see the poems on the page.


2 thoughts on “What was she thinking?

  1. Thanks for the tip about the book. I mostly like my Kindle because I don’t have room for the books I already have! But, certain types of books and virtually all poems are awful on the Kindle. Billy Collins had a fit when he saw his poems on a Kindle! And, many books that have illustrations come out poorly because sometimes the illustrations don’t show up and if the author references the pictures, you have no idea what he or she is talking about! I’m in a book club and I don’t know if I will ever get the knack of bookmarking sections that I want to comment on. Plus, the pagination is different/nonexistent, so if someone in the book club refers to a specific page, I am out of luck. For me, the Kindle is great for the endless, cheap, trashy detective novels I like to read for relaxation. : )

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