Saturday, July 02, 2005

What Was She Thinking: Notes from a Scandal by Zoe Heller

On the surface, this book is about a 40 something year old art teacher having a sexual affair with a fifteen-year-old student.

More accurately though, I found this to a study in the effects of loneliness. True, horrible, deep loneliness and the effect it can have on a person. Loneliness is worse than depression. Depression, they can give you a drug to make you think things are better for a little while. But I’ve yet to hear of the doctor that can prescribe you with friends who you can trust and won’t abandon you as soon as the something better comes along.

The story is told through the eyes of another teacher who observes with careful detail the bizarreness taking place around her. The narrator is the one alone. Sheba, the art teacher who commits the crime, has a loving husband and two children and a beautiful home.

But the narrator of the story has only a cat to keep her company and on the holidays she visits her sister and her sister’s family. Her fascination with the details of the story seems unhealthy. I’ve read reviews of the book that regard her harshly. But as someone who can relate all too well to the state of complete and total loneliness, I viewed her fascination not so much as a sign of a mental illness, but rather a lack of anything better to focus on. Most “normal” people live their lives wrapped up in their own private universe, their family and their children and maybe a friend or two and not much else matters unless it directly affects that world. But for those of us without family or close friends, you have to focus on something. Our library books and TV and pets can only occupy so much of our minds. (Though I know people who do spend an unhealthy amount of their energy focusing on their pets, but this only proves my point.) When you don’t have anything else, you dwell on meaningless things. Your heart breaks more than it should when your friends don’t call and you try like hell to convince yourself that you’ll be fine when all along you know that you won’t be.

No one understands lonely unless they’ve felt it. There aren’t words to explain it. You either know it or you don’t. This book really reached out to me, because the writer seems to understand the state of lonely so clearly. I’ve never read a better or more accurate description of being alone than the following two paragraphs that I copied from pages 197-198 of the book.

Being alone is not the most awful thing in the world. You visit your museums and cultivate your interests and remind yourself how lucky you are not to be one of those spindly Sudanese children with flies beading their mouths. You make out to-do lists -- reorganize linen cupboard, learn two sonnets. You dole out little treats to yourself -- slices of ice cream cake, concerts at Wigmore Hall. And then, every once in a while , you wake up and gaze out of the window at another bloody daybreak, and think, I cannot do this anymore. I cannot pull myself together again and spend the next fifteen hours of wakefulness fending off the fact of my own misery.

People like Sheba think that they know what it’s like to be lonely. They cast their minds back to the time they broke up with a boyfriend in 1975 and endured a whole month before meeting someone new. Of the week they spent in a Bavarian steel town when they were fifteen years old, visiting their greasy-haired German pen pal and discovering that her handwriting was the best thing about her. 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 the darkened flat on Halloween night, because you can’t bear to expose your bleak evening to a crowd of jeering trick-or-treaters. Or to have the librarian smile pityingly and say, “Goodness, you’re a quick reader!” When you bring back seven books, read from cover to cover, a week after taking them out. They don’t know what it is to be 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. About all this, Sheba and her like have no clue.

I enjoyed this book. I thought the story was interesting. While the subject matter seems salacious, the details of the affair are not graphic. There is nothing in it too offensive or gross.

My recommendation: I'm not even sure what category this books fits into. Not a romance, not a mystery. Just sort of a slice of life story about how someone’s irresponsible actions can turn his or her world upside down. It's quite interesting and well-written, so I'd recommend it.

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