What Was She Thinking - Second Sunday Book Club July Meeting

The book for July is What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller . We have posted information about the author and a reading guide. It might be helpful to take a look at the reading guide AFTER you read the book but before you attend the meeting. The guides always seem to provide good insight, and help to facilitate better discussion. We will be meeting at Blue Orchid Restaurant in Lancaster. Hope to see you in July!


About the Author    

Zoë Kate Hinde Heller (born 7 July 1965) is an English journalist and novelist. Heller began her career in journalism, as a feature writer for the Independent on Sunday in the UK. She later returned to New York to write for Vanity Fair and then The New Yorker. She also wrote a weekly column for the Sunday Times magazine in the UK, and was a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, for which she won the British Press Awards' "Columnist of the Year" in 2002. She currently lives in New York City.

Book Description

Subtitled Notes on a Scandal, Heller's engrossing second novel (after Everything You Know) is actually the story of two inappropriate obsessions-one a consummated affair between a high school teacher and her student, the other a secret passion harbored by a dowdy spinster. Sheba Hart, a new 40ish art teacher at a London school for working-class kids, has been arrested for having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old student, Steven Connolly. The papers are having a blast. Sheba is herself the object of fascination for her older colleague and defender, Barbara Covett, whose interest in Sheba is not overtly romantic but has an erotic-and at times malevolent-intensity. Barbara narrates the story of Sheba's affair while inadvertently revealing her own obsession and her pivotal role in the scandal. The novel is gripping from start to finish; Heller brings vivid, nuanced characterizations to the racy story. Sheba is upper-class, arty, carelessly beautiful in floaty layers of clothing, with a full life of her own: doting older husband, impossible adolescent daughter, a son with Down's Syndrome, real if underdeveloped talent as a potter. She never got a driver's license, she tells Barbara, because she is always given rides; people want to do things for her. Barbara's respectable maiden-lady exterior hides a bitter soul that feasts on others' real and imagined shortcomings: one colleague's carelessly shaved armpits, another's risible baseball jacket. Even characters on stage for a minute (a Camden barman who hams it up for Barbara) live and breathe.Equally adroit at satire and at psychological suspense, Heller charts the course of a predatory friendship and demonstrates the lengths to which some people go for human company. 258 pages

Reader’s Guide

1. There has traditionally been a taboo on older women/younger men relationships. In the novel, the news media describes the affair between Sheba and Connolly as "despicable" and "unhealthy." Why do you think it has historically been viewed this way, and do you agree?

2. Heller expertly captures the insulating and sometimes claustrophobic atmosphere of academia. Give examples of this, and discuss the differences and similarities between Sheba and Barbara that brought them to teach at the same institution.

3. Connolly's unabashed admiration and innocence prove irresistible to Sheba. How are Connolly's attentions much different from the oglings of her academic colleagues since both indicate that they find her sexually attractive. Why is one so much more flattering?

4. What makes a woman like Sheba behave so irresponsibly? How easy was it for her to risk everything for the danger of the relationship? Does Sheba really think about the consequences of her actions?

5. Why does Sheba's friendship with Sue Hodges seem so ill-founded to Barbara? Why would Sheba choose Sue her as her confidant—she never mentions Connolly's visits to Sue. How does Barbara seduce Sheba away from Sue?

6. Barbara observes that Connolly's overt effort to please Sheba is like "the cynicism of all courtship." Discuss what she means by this.

7. Barbara asks why Sheba insists on seeing Connolly as gifted and extraordinary in a sea of fairly ordinary, untalented students. Does the element of class exacerbate the forbidden nature of the relationship? Is Connolly exploiting this? What is his culpability in the situation?

8. Why, when Barbara seems like such a prim and formal person, is she initially so sympathetic to Sheba's predicament? Why is she not appalled? She says she thinks that Connolly is actually benefiting from the relationship, not being abused by it. Is it her desire for Sheba's friendship or pure feminist support? Does she take vicarious pleasure in it?

9. Sheba is presented throughout the first portion of the book as a very appealing character, seeking few of the advantages her money and class could provide. She bemoans her own lack of ambition. How much do her feelings of insecurity, boredom, and her problems with Polly affect her vulnerability to Connolly?

10. What is Barbara's reaction when she finally finds out about the affair? Is this the cause of her betrayal? Does it lead to her punishment at St. George's? Does Barbara have the right to set down the events in writing? Discuss how their friendship provides as fertile ground for mutual misunderstanding, jealousy, and treachery as does the illicit love affair.

11. At the end which woman is more sympathetic? Is Barbara friend, guardian, foe, jailer, interloper, predator? Is Sheba a victim of circumstances, an understandably bored housewife, or a selfish woman spoiled by privilege?

12. The story is finally about the two women, and the many facets of female friendship. Discuss the ways in which Heller's device of having Barbara tell the story serves to enrich the novel by revealing both women's emotional lives.

Join or login to comment.

  • Kim D.

    So sorry I missed this, I wound up at work until 7p and then headed home to fall over I was so exhausted!

    July 19

  • Susan F.

    Wow! Amazing turn out. Wish I could have said hello to everyone but those on our end got caught up in our discussion, and a great discussion it was about a book that addressed an issue that is always in the headlines anymore.

    1 · July 14

    • Kathlene S.

      Wonderful turn -out and a great discussion on our end as well!

      1 · July 14

  • Chris Conrad S.

    I enjoyed my first meeting. Thank you all for making me feel welcome.

    July 14

    • Kathlene S.

      Glad to hear that Chris. Hope you return often!

      July 14

  • Susan F.

    I did comment on the meet-up on the site already, but we enjoyed a great discussion on the book and all seemed to agree on our feelings about the characters.

    1 · July 14

  • Kathlene S.

    What a wonderful turnout and delicious discussion that followed. Great to see so many new faces!

    July 14

  • Alyona A.

    Very interesting conversation.

    1 · July 13

    • Kathlene S.

      It was indeed. Thank you Alyona for adding so much to the conversation!

      July 14

  • Kim D.

    Just an FYI I am working until 6 so will arrive a little later

    July 12

    • Kathlene S.

      No problem. Thank you for letting us know. We will save a seat for you Kim!

      July 12

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