AUTHOR: ZOE HELLER
Details: Book Club selection
“From the first day that the beguiling Sheba Hart joins the staff of St. George’s history teacher Barbara Covett is convinced she has found a kindred spirit.
Barbara’s loyalty to her new friend is passionate and unstinting and when Sheba is discovered to be having an illicit affair with one of her young pupils, Barbara quickly elects herself as Sheba’s chief defender. But all is not as it first seems in this dark story and, as Sheba will soon discover, a friend can be just as treacherous as any lover.”
“Insidious”. That is the word that sprang into my mind while reading this book. And although the blurb seems to indicate that this insidiousness only becomes clear near the end of the story, it is obvious to the reader almost from the very first page.
While it may appear that this is the story about an affair between a rather foolish 40-something female teacher and a fifteen year old schoolboy, this really is a story about one older spinster becoming obsessed with a younger colleague and going to great lengths to make herself indispensable in the life of her “victim”. Even at the beginning of the story it is clear that Barbara is anything but the efficient teacher and loyal friends she sees herself as. This story is told by Barbara and even as she tells the story about Sheba’s inappropriate behaviour and its consequences, even while she tries to paint a picture of herself as a wonderful person trying to help a person she loves, it is very clear that there is something wrong with her feelings and actions. It is Barbara herself who informs the reader about “misunderstandings” between herself and other teachers. It is Barbara who tells us that a former friend accused her of being “too intense” and it is she who confesses to being jealous when Sheba appears to be getting close to another of their colleagues. Barbara’s creepiness is at its clearest when she admits to having highlighted the “important” – read “most incriminating” – parts of Sheba’s story using gold stars, with the moment she finds out about the affair warranting two stars.
A good book, but not a very nice or pleasant read. While the story fascinated me in the same way a horror movie might – I didn’t really want to watch it unfold but couldn’t look away either – it failed to capture me. It all seemed just a little bit too much to me; Sheba a little bit too infatuated and silly, Barbara a little bit too sociopathic, Richard a little bit too dim, Sheba’s mother a little bit too horrible and Steven a little bit too predatory. It felt almost as if I were reading about caricatures rather than characters. In fact, I couldn’t help feeling that this story was written in a way very similar to the sensational newspaper articles Barbara professes to despair of yet appears to have read in detail.
And yet, I couldn’t put the book down either. I had to continue reading until the very end, which wasn’t really an ending if you think about it. And I’ve got a feeling that I will be thinking about everything that might or might not happen after the story ends for quite some time. In fact, I can’t wait to discuss this book with my reading group in a few days. I’ve got a feeling opinions on this one are going to be divided and that should make for a very interesting meeting. I may not have enjoyed reading this book very much, but I am thoroughly impressed with the way in which the author managed to tell such a horrific story in what were, on first impression, very innocent terms.
“There are certain people in whom you can detect the seeds of madness – seeds that have remained dormant only because the people in question have lived relatively comfortable middle-class lives”