When Sheba, a pottery teacher in London, is discovered having an affair with one of her high school students, her life is understandably torn apart. She loses her job, she splits with her husband, and she’s denied all but limited contact with her children. There is only one person who remains with her during this time, an older teacher, now retired, named Barbara, who takes care of Sheba as she mourns. Barbara is not who she first appears to be, however. As she narrates Sheba’s story – ostensibly an attempt to give the true facts about what happened between Sheba and young Steven Connolly – the reader comes to understand that this is not only Sheba’s story, but Barbara’s.
I had no idea this was a book until a few months ago when I read Lena’s review. I’d seen the movie a few years back and really enjoyed it, so when I saw that it was based on a book, I got a copy right away. I picked it up my first night on vacation and was immediately sucked into the book. The prose was fantastic! Since the whole story is narrated from Barbara’s point of view, it’s told in her voice, which is very distinctive. She is above retirement age, very proper in her way of speech, and from the very beginning, it’s apparent that something is not quite right with her.
Throughout the book, you get all of Sheba’s story, how she came to be having this affair with a boy more than 25 years younger than her, and how that affair came to suck up her life so that even now, she is devastated by the fact that Steven seems to have “broken up” with her. Sheba is a ridiculous woman, no doubt, carried away by her emotions and doing whatever comes easiest to her. She’s a pacifist and wants to please everyone, a trait that helped her get into this situation in the first place. What she has done with Steven is reprehensible, but Barbara writes the story as if it was any ordinary love affair. She gives Steven as much responsibility as Sheba, since he is the one who first flirted and made passes at his teacher, and blames Sheba only for succumbing to the affair, for not stopping it before it started.
At the same time, the reader learns of Barbara’s own obsession with Sheba and the vast loneliness that the quiet, single old woman lives with. She is socially awkward, meticulous in everything she does, and has had a string of female “friendships” so intense they border on love affairs, at least in Barbara’s mind. While she never admits, up front, that her feelings are romantic, it is obvious to the reader that Barbara is completely blind to the true nature of what she feels. Her attachment to Sheba is so strong that even after she knows of the illegal affair, she doesn’t tell the authorities. She doesn’t want Sheba’s life to be destroyed, but instead wants to “help” her. This of course also leads to the unraveling of Barbara’s life, until the two women are living side by side, ostracized by everyone else.
Character is so important to this book, and Heller got it down perfect. The experience was slightly uncomfortable because I could see traits of my own in both Sheba and Barbara. Notes on a Scandal shows how easily some of our best traits – like Sheba’s desire never to hurt people’s feelings or Barbara’s loyalty – can quickly cross the line into bad ones. I imagine everyone, at one point in their lives, has been hurt by their own best intentions, or has hurt others with them. Of course not all of us will have affairs with 15-year-old boys! But for all Barbara’s slight off-ness, she really does show how easily something innocent can turn into something perverse or illegal or wrong or disturbing.
I felt sympathy for both Barbara and Sheba, despite their weaknesses and wrongdoings. Life is not easy for anyone. Neither of them did what was right. Both of them sunk into their worst passions and felt helpless once in them. But despite their issues, I still pitied both of them and loved them as people. It’s a very strange contrast, and I love that Heller was able to present the contrast so perfectly.