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What Was She Thinking, by Zoe Heller

I’ll start with a personal aside: During the January residency, I shared the first chapter of my novel in progress with my small reading group and my adviser for the semester, Jonathan Dee. I received a lot of good feedback, and the manuscript is better for it. One of the comments, though, stuck in my craw (to use a cliched regional colloquialism). I have chosen to tell the story of my novel’s protagonist, Margaret, from the first person point of view. One of my fellow readers questioned the choice, reasoning that it is difficult (and rare) to maintain the first person viewpoint for an entire novel.

Granted, first person is limited in several ways and presents its share of difficulties; but this novel is Margaret’s story, and while I’m struggling with many things (mostly, how to weave the past and present into a coherent whole) point of view was NOT one of those things, at least, not until that conversation. So as I left Charlotte I was mapping out my reading schedule for January and February. I picked several first-person narrative novels to plow through in January. (In addition to What Was She Thinking I checked out Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier [which I couldn’t bring myself to read past the first several pages] and White Tiger by Aravind Adiga [which was a fascinating book, but probably not germane to my current work] for the first person narration.)

I wanted to get a feel for how the varied authors approached the task. I also reviewed several other (previously read) novel-length first person narrations on my shelf: Ashley Warlick’s, Seek The Living; The Forger, by Paul Watkins; White Oleander, by Janet Fitch; and, Wally Lamb’s, She’s Come Undone. I was looking at transitions and segues and the verbal clues that pull the story back and forth from the past to the present…

All of that to say that my review of What Was She Thinking is tinged and tinted by the “reason” I was reading it.

Brief Overview

What Was She Thinking is the story of Sheba, a school teacher who gets swept up in an affair with a student, as told by her co-worker and compatriot, Barbara. Barbara is unaware of the affair at first (though as she tells the story of Sheba, she tells it with knowledge of the affair and Sheba’s side of the story, which obviously tilts the narrative in Sheba’s favor) and is concerned more about becoming Sheba’s friend; it is a friendship that endures the scandal as Barbara becomes Sheba’s de facto guardian as her family falls apart and she awaits trial. The author, Zoe Heller, is a competent and confident wordsmith. She has a very easy, but not simplistic style. The story is interesting enough, but it left me feeling a little empty; there wasn’t anything that I took with me when I walked away from the book. It was a “good read,” I wrote in my journal, “but not life changing.”

Notes on Craft

The first, and in some ways most important, complaint I had with this book was the first person narrative. (Strange I know, from the person who’s insisting that first person is the way to go for my own work…) Let me explain why I feel this way about What Was She Thinking: for me, the first person narrative of this book is a gimmick. We are given a narrator who acts as a frame, really, in the old Joseph Conrad/Heart of Darkness tradition. Barbara is almost always used as a window through which we look at Sheba. The “I” narrator is used to tell what is really Sheba’s story. As I said, Heller does a nice job with this book, so far be it from me to question her method. I will however detail a couple of places where this Barbara-as-frame set up left me feeling cheated or disoriented.

  1. The cumulative effect of the use of Barbara as narrator, for me, was that I was pulled back from the story and reminded that Barbara was telling me someone else’s story. I suppose it would be possible to say, “But it isn’t Sheba’s story; it’s Barbara’s. The important thing is how Barbara reacts to the situation…” Perhaps. If that was the goal, it didn’t work for me. Instead, Barbara’s narration tended to be filled with pit-stops and pot-holes. Diversions about Barbara’s cat or an ill-fated date with a Math teacher from the school function to some extent as a reminder that we are being kept from the “real” story. (Yes, both the Math teacher and the cat scenes do MORE than that, and they do contribute to the plot in their own way, but at the time they are happening, it isn’t clear that this is the case…)

  2. The same point, but slightly different in explanation: The characters in this book are well executed, but none of them seem to really pop. There is no stand-out character. That isn’t a fatal flaw, by any means, but Sheba is the character with the most potential to be memorable, but in the end, she doesn’t shine through (for good or bad). She sort of fades or melts into the background of waiting and pining away for her lost love. The bottom line is that if Sheba is–as I argue–the signature character of this book, then everything we learn about her is filtered through the lens of Barbara’s first person narration. It is akin to telling the story of The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield through the narration of his sister, Phoebe.

  3. That leaves us with this: Barbara is a narrator immediately set up as unreliable. She can only tell us what she thinks happened between Sheba and the student, based on Sheba’s telling of the story and what she realized was going on after the fact. Like coffee, this sort of double filtering makes for a weaker brew.

What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal is a well written book, in many ways. Heller is a competent writer with a good command of the language. It is, in the language of movie reviews, a “rent me” title. If you’d like to buy it, though, it is available in my book store, powered by Amazon.

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