Friday, June 8, 2007

Please, no more sex with minors!

After reading the third book on this theme in less than two weeks, and choosing to ignore what this might say about me, I'm ready to give this theme a rest. I don't care if I never read another book about a 40-year-old fucking a teenager ever again, and that's a sentence I never thought I'd utter!

Before I turn my back on it, though, I'm going to post about What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. I had been dying to read this book ever since I saw the movie starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. I enjoyed it, but not as much as I expected.

The book is about twin obsessions. The one that drives the plot is the art teacher Sheba Hart's interest in a student named Steven Connolly. The interest starts out as professional (he displays a talent for art, but is unable to take her class because he is in special ed., so she agrees to help him after school), takes a turn towards the sexual, but surprisingly, winds up being a one-sided crush on Sheba's part. Sheba actually falls in love with him, which causes him to back off.

The other obsession (as those who have seen the movie will know) is Sheba's colleague Barbara Covett's feelings for Sheba. Barbara is the narrator of the book, and her feelings towards Sheba are bizarre and complex. Barbara has never married, and alludes to another strong friendship with a woman that ended badly, but you don't exactly get the impression that she's a lesbian either. Her interest in Sheba is something else altogether. In the movie, Barbara comes off as more twisted and obsessive, where Sheba is a basically good woman with bad judgement in her choice of companions -- ALL of her companions.

In the book, Barbara portrays Sheba as selfish, vain and flighty. The movie depicts Barbara as being an emotional vampire, but in the book, Barbara's actions and feelings seem more understandable, given Sheba's alternating fits of dependence on her and ignoring her altogether. In one breathtakingly callous moment, Barbara has stopped by Sheba's house, dreadfully upset because she just learned she'd have to put her cat down. During the conversation, Sheba's underage paramour calls up and asks to meet. Sheba chooses to leave her friend alone with her grief, her friend who has kept her secret, given her advice and acted as a good sounding board.

I think everyone's had a friend like Sheba Hart -- although probably not one with as big a secret as she had. In college, mine was a brilliant, charismatic, borderline alcoholic with a propensity towards casual sex, although one of the guys I thought she'd slept with repeatedly told me later that they'd never actually had sex because she'd always start crying and he'd hold her until she fell asleep. I liked her a lot, I thought I had something to offer her and had a lot of fun being around her, but she just started to suck the life out of me, because it was always all about her. Always. If I made other plans, she'd fuck with them, but would never hesitate to ditch me if something better came along.

It makes me wonder, though. I wound up walking away, but what made Barbara Covett stay? (Heller has a lot of fun with names: Covett (she does, Hart (she wears hers on her sleeve), Pabblem (the principal of the school, and the perfect word for Barbara's opinion of his new-age, touchy-feely educational and management theories). Also making cameos in the book are a Rumer, a Bangs, and a Hodge, the last of which is depicted as very dull and foolish). Was it loneliness, the desire to be needed (things get to a point where no one else could help Sheba), some sort of twisted love? The reader can decide.

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