Thursday, January 17, 2019

Book 164: Notes On A Scandal



"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. Or 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 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."

Dates read: July 29- August 2, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Arbitrary age guidelines are...well, arbitrary. A person isn't suddenly mature and responsible enough to drive a car the day of their sixteenth birthday if they weren't the day before. They don't suddenly understand all the implications of a contract they sign the day they turn eighteen if they didn't previously. There's no magic power to being able to handle your liquor at 21. But since it's enormously impractical to examine these kinds of milestones on a case-by-case basis, we develop a shorthand. Most 16 year olds are in a better headspace to drive than those younger than them. By the time someone hits 18, they're more mature and responsible than they were even a few years ago, more able to make adult decisions. And your brain is more developed by the time you get to 21, better able to absorb the impact of alcohol.

One of the more controversial age guidelines (and one that tends to vary depending on place and circumstance) is the age of consent. In the US, it tends to vary between 16-18. Europe skews slightly younger, with most between 14-16. Again, there's no hard and fast way to assess if someone is "ready" to give knowledgeable consent, so you just have to set a standard and go with it. What is always inappropriate and often illegal is exploiting a relationship of power. So when Sheba Hart, an art teacher at an English school in Zoe Heller's Notes On A Scandal, begins a relationship with 15 year-old student Steven, she's clearly in the wrong. Sheba's story is told through the voice of fellow teacher Barbara Covett, as a manuscript that Barbara is writing in the wake of Sheba's deeds becoming public. At the beginning of the events that the book recounts, she's a bitter, lonely older woman who has had no real bonds with anyone besides her cat. When Sheba, lovely and ditzy, makes her teaching debut at St. George's, Barbara sets out to befriend the soon-overwhelmed younger woman.

Well, befriend isn't really the right word. She wants to become a necessary part of her life, the way she'd been closely enmeshed with a different younger woman years earlier who got married and will no longer speak to her. There's an implication that Barbara's interest is more than platonic, but I think making too much of a "repressed lesbian" angle is overstating the case. As I read it, Barbara's not trying to get into Sheba's pants, she's trying to get into her head and exert control over her. And the way Heller writes it (through Barbara's not-exactly-unbiased narrative voice), Sheba isn't exactly in control of her affair with Steven, either. The deeper Sheba gets in, the more he pulls away until he eventually ends it. And then it all comes tumbling down, leaving Sheba cast off from her family with no one to stand by her side. No one, that is, besides Barbara.

Heller has written a book with a lot of moral complexity. Barbara is certainly manipulative, but she's also desperately lonely, and is understandably very hurt when Sheba throws her over after she's had to put her cat down to go cavort with Steven. Fundamentally, she wants to be important to another person, which is something most of us want (although most of us aren't as manipulative as Barbara). Sheba is the one crossing the boundary with Steven, but she met her much-older husband when he was her professor in college, when she was only a few years older than her teenage lover, and Steven proves to be the party less emotionally invested in their relationship. Both women are predators, but neither is purely evil.

It's a book that may prove difficult for some people to read as it deals heavily with a adult-teenager, teacher-student relationship. Barbara, for all that Heller has given her some sympathetic qualities, is a negative character and given that the book is told from her perspective, I'd classify it as "dark" in tone. But it's undeniably compelling. Even though I watched the movie (years ago, when it came out) and remembered the "twist", as it were, I still found it interesting and enjoyable, in its own way, to read. I'd recommend it for people prepared for the subject matter.

One year ago, I was reading: An Untamed State (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Wars of the Roses

Three years ago, I was reading: The Woman Who Would Be King

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