The Short Version: Barbara, an older schoolteacher, recounts the story of Sheba – a younger, new teacher at her school – and the affair she had with a student. However, Barbara has her own agenda and it turns out no one ever quite tells the whole truth.
The Review: That was a crappy sum-up. But the plot of the novel really isn’t all that much more. Really truly. The plot is, in fact, so simple and such a classic that you’d think this book would be… boring. Simple. But oh no.
Enter Barbara. Our narrator. This isn’t a third person version of events, this isn’t Sheba telling us her story in a diary, this isn’t the Connolly kid telling us about the teacher he shagged – this is Barbara, a third party, relating the story to us. She admits very early on that she wasn’t there for many of the events and only relates them to us through what Sheba supposedly told her… but for some reason, we believe everything Barbara says. Even though she tells us very clearly right off the bat that she is an unreliable narrator, we believe her. I think this is one of the great things Zoë Heller pulls off in this book: she exploits the fact that we, readers in general, are predisposed to believe whatever the narrator is telling us. At the end of the story, when they’re revealed to be unreliable for whatever reason (and there are many beloved novels with unreliable narrators – American Psycho, Money, The Stranger, just to start the list), we smile wryly and say “oh, they got me!” because we want to believe the truth until proven fiction. Here, even as Barbara admits that she wasn’t there, tells Bangs about Sheba’s affair, and is an all-around creepy old lady, for some bloody reason we believe her. It isn’t until Sheba finds the ‘diary’ holding these titular notes – and has this moment of clarity, cursing the older woman out – that we realize that we may not’ve gotten the whole story. Obviously something went down – but maybe there’s a lot more to it than we realize…
So, yes, I can’t believe it took me a year to get around to this book. Not only did it fly by (no doubt aided by the gray rainy New York early-spring – perfect weather for this novel), it flew by in a satisfactory way. At the end, I wasn’t pissed that it’d flown by, I didn’t wish there was more… in fact, I felt as though it had ended at the right moment. The opportune moment, with enough unresolved tension to the story that the characters live on in their own realities but we, the reader, realize that we don’t need to hear any more of it at this point. The excitement of the story has passed; it’s time to move on.
I did think that the end was a bit rushed – Sheba suddenly finds the diary and then BOOP over. That’s what those last ten or so pages felt like, really. But again, it all comes back to the enduring figure of Barbara. It speeds to the end like that because, well, she wanted to speed through this part. I’ve not seen the film, by the way, but that didn’t stop me from perfectly imagining Judi Dench as Barbara. Just absolutely brilliant casting – I think I would’ve seen her in my mind regardless. Cate Blanchett also works really quite well, although she doesn’t fit quite as perfectly… there’s something too ethereal about her. But regardless.
As I’ve said, the facts of the story are really almost too predictable: student has crush on teacher, teacher decides to allow it to happen, they’re trysting all over the place, the student starts to back away (because, well, they’re a kid), the teacher starts to get desperate, somehow someone finds something out, shit hits the fan, etc. But this was, for whatever wonderfully magically streamlined reason, something fresh. It felt fresh. It felt interesting, if not exciting, each time something else happened. And the fact that we can’t quite actually trust any of it is really quite refreshing, too.
The Rating: 5 out of 5. A snappy, engaging rainy-day read. Seriously, this is a book best read in the springtime with a cup of juice and gray skies. There was something fully-formed about the way this novel presented itself to me, coming alive from the first page and leading me nicely to the end, then popping off without a fuss. I’m so glad I finally got around to reading it.