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on 29 April 2017
Now here’s a rare thing – a book that I didn’t think was as good as the movie adaptation. And it’s not that it’s a bad book – it’s just that it seems to drag on here and there, and I found it hard to relate to any of the characters.

Still, the story is fascinating, and even though I didn’t really like the narrator, I didn’t like the protagonist, either. Loosely speaking, then, this book contains the memoirs of a former teacher called Barbara Covett as she recounts what happened at the school she was at.

Sheba Hart, a younger woman, joined the staff of the school and eventually had an affair with one of her students, leading to the titular scandal. Right from the start, we know that the scandal became public and that Sheba was ostracised by society, but through her memories of the whole sordid affair, we get to see why she did it.

I’m not really sure what else there is to add to that. It was a decent enough book and I’m glad that I finally got round to reading it, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it and I’d say that it’s one of the more forgettable books that I’ve read this year. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003, but it didn’t blow my mind.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 25 March 2007
A well written story, focussing on the theme of obsession. The narrator, Barbara, is a lonely, unmarried school teacher, who becomes fixated on a younger teacher at her school, Sheba. Sheba is wealthy and married with children, but embarks upon an affair with one of her 15 year old pupils. Barbara narrates the story of the affair, her friendship with Sheba, and the consequences.

The story is well written, with a good turn of phrase, and nice descriptions. It was easy to read and reasonably gripping. The characters were interesting and flawed, although perhaps not entirely convincing, particularly Sheba, who seems unbelievably stupid. Barbara is a better character. The exploration of obsession was well executed and gave no easy answers. The undertone of subtle malice throughout was nicely done and the book did leave me feeling slightly unsettled.

Plot wise, it was a little disappointing and not entirely without holes. I had hoped for a more gripping conclusion. It was just too hard to sympathise with Sheba, which made the denouement less exciting for me. The earlier parts of the story hung together better than the later parts, where I got the feeling that things hadn't been so well thought through.

On the whole, this was an interesting book and well written enough to be worth reading, despite some flaws.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 19 November 2016
An intriguing, undemanding read which I enjoyed. Narrated by teacher Barbara, a spinster approaching retirement, it tells the story of her colleague and friend Sheba. A married art teacher from a well-to-do background, the lovely Sheba seems to have the kind of charmed life the lonely Barbara can only dream of. But when she ill-advisedly begins an affair with a 15 year old boy from their school, things look set to change...

There are moments of hilarity as Barbara relays Sheba's confidences to her; the way the 40 year old woman imbues her young lover's limited conversational abilities with romantic mystique. And as she describes daily life in a rough comprehensive one laughs out loud at times.
But there is also sadness in the desperate loneliness of our narrator, and an ever-present threatening feeling, as she recalls previous 'difficulties' with friends who no longer feature in her life, shows jealousy over Sheba's other friends, and , most mystifying, is keeping a detailed set of notes on the whole incident, complete with timeline...

Good entertainment, though I felt it fizzled out just a tad.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 23 June 2016
Simultaneously horrible and fascinating, this is so gripping that I literally read it in one sitting. I won't repeat the plot-line but at heart there are three stories in play: Sheba's sexual obsession with a 15-year old pupil; Barbara's own (sexual?) obsession with Sheba as told in her narrative that we are reading; and the story that Barbara doesn't tell us but which we glimpse through the interstices of her story.

I couldn't help but be reminded of the story of Troilus and Criseyde with Barbara as a twisted Pandarus figure: while she certainly doesn't facilitate Sheba's illicit relationship, she still inserts herself into it, making herself the third point of the classic erotic triangle while simultaneously inverting the pattern. Like Pandarus, she's not just the observer that she pretends to be, but is actually a participant and scripts her own role at the centre of the drama.

Also fascinating is the theme of motherhood and maternity, and the way it becomes twisted, tainted and corrupt in all kinds of ways. Overall this is a taut and tense read with the narrative drive and pace of a thriller, but the subtle nuances of something quite different.
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on 24 September 2003
Zoe Heller's novel about a slightly absent-minded teacher having an affair with her young pupil takes a sinister tone from the start. Told through her 'ever so devoted' best friend we discover a woman who has become the obsession of her doting carer. Heller flawlessly reveals Barbara's obsession through dark and very observational humour. This is a literary Single White Female with the narrator as a lonely old bitter, jealous and sinister woman living vicariously through her friend, taking advantage of her situation with chilling overtones that makes you really believe that she is sitting at night rocking and wearing her friend's clothes. Excellently written, very funny, dark with twinges of scary. Highly recommended as a very believable account of an obsessive woman and her strange life!
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on 23 August 2013
Another well overdue book from my TBR and I have to ask myself why it took me so long to pick it up. I haven't seen the film version but I do know it stars Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench. And on reading Barbara's narrative I could 'hear' Judi Dench's voice in my head.

I really enjoyed this book, well written with some great descriptions. I particularly liked the use of the word 'incubus' when an angry Sheba told Barbara what her husband had said about her. That word stuck with me, a strong accusation but perhaps correct to an extent. The author leaves it up to the reader to decide what the outcome of the situation will be. Both with the impending court case and the future of Barbara and Sheba's friendship.

Let's look at Barbara first: Here is a woman who worms her way into the life of those she presumes to be weak. A predator, who dominates and in a less obvious way bullies. Someone who becomes a subversive friend, attaches like a leech before you realise that you really want to get rid of them. Can you identify with that? I'm sure you can from somewhere in your life. We get a glimpse of this Barbara when she refers to her previous friendship with Jenny who cuts her out completely. Barbara is hurt but doesn't see what she is doing in these relationships, smothering her friends. A spinster teacher with no external interests in life other than her cat.

Moving on to Sheba: Sheba has gone into teaching later in life after bringing up her family. She has a trying relationship with her mother and is the daughter of a renowned father. Sheba married young, much to her mother's upset but adding to this upset by marrying a man much older than herself. Her husband is wrapped up in his own career and you are left with the view that Sheba feels a tad neglected. She starts her new teaching post and has trouble holding the classes under control. She is shown some interest by a younger pupil, is flattered and responds to his charms. What struck me about Sheba is her lack of self control. She knew her actions were wrong but she did nothing to put a stop to it or made half hearted attempts in the beginning. We see her as weak and she is certainly in the eyes of Barbara. Yet, Sheba does have strengths.

I am not sure if I want to see the film. More often than not, film adaptations do not live up to the written word. The storyline is uncomfortable as it discusses abuse of trust, sexual relationship between teacher and pupil, friendship, marriage and much more. Blanchett and Dench are both formidable actresses and I am sure gave their roles justice.

You may not like the subject matter but the book is well worth reading and I highly recommend it.
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on 31 December 2010
Hmmmm. This is one of those books that would be wonderful for a book group - so much to discuss, so much to say! - but when it comes to writing a review, it's hard to know where to start. This extraordinarily accomplished novel focusses on two teachers, Barbara and Sheba, and their unlikely friendship. While Barbara is a retirement-age spinster, traditional and set in her ways, Sheba is a younger, free-spirited pottery teacher, new to the school and to the profession. The book is entirely told through Barbara, in the form of a kind of journal of her relationship with Sheba and the fall-out from her new friend's passionate affair with a student at the school.

Despite the scandal of the title relating to Sheba, her illicit relationship is almost a secondary concern, forming the centrepiece for the whole book yet never really feeling like its true heart. It's not glossed over exactly, but it's not as important as I'd expected. Instead, the novel is very much about Barbara. She is one of the most complex, unpleasant yet strangely sympathetic characters I have ever had the privilege to encounter. I think everyone knows someone like her. Her 'notes' on Sheba are almost sinister in their obsessive detail. Every conversation, every circumstance, is painstakingly transcribed, mulled over, analysed and ultimately reflected back onto herself in a sickening display of self-importance. She is the prying curtain-twitcher, the pompous grandmother, the unreasonable old lady that everybody loves to hate. Yet underneath all this, the reader gets a glimpse of a lonely and slightly bitter woman who is, at some level, very much aware of her own faults, even as she tries to deflect them away in blind denial. There is a self-pity and naïvety underlying everything she 'writes' that makes it hard to truly dislike her as a character, even as the reader instinctively shies away from her. She is what makes the novel so compelling yet so strangely painful to read.

I can't believe it's taken me so long to finally read this book. It's not as easy a read as it seems on the surface, with its compulsive attention to detail and thought-provoking themes, and it's definitely not a book that leaves you with a smile on your face and a sense of having really ENJOYED it - yet it is absolutely superb in its execution and deserves every ounce of praise that has been flung its way. And on a personal note, reading it at last means I can finally watch the movie adaptation, which has been sitting in its cellophane for months! Highly recommended.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 September 2009
This is one of those books I've been meaning to read for years and finally got around to, and I can't believe I waited so long. Simultaneously horrible and fascinating, this is so gripping that I literally read it in one sitting. I won't repeat the plot-line but at heart there are three stories in play: Sheba's sexual obsession with a 15-year old pupil; Barbara's own (sexual?) obsession with Sheba as told in her narrative that we are reading; and the story that Barbara doesn't tell us but which we glimpse through the interstices of her story.

I couldn't help but be reminded of the story of Troilus and Criseyde with Barbara as a twisted Pandarus figure: while she certainly doesn't facilitate Sheba's illicit relationship, she still inserts herself into it, making herself the third point of the classic erotic triangle while simultaneously inverting the pattern. Like Pandarus, she's not just the observer that she pretends to be, but is actually a participant and scripts her own role at the centre of the drama.

Also fascinating is the theme of motherhood and maternity, and the way it becomes twisted, tainted and corrupt in all kinds of ways. Overall this is a taut and tense read with the narrative drive and pace of a thriller, but the subtle nuances of something quite different. Highly recommended.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 September 2009
This is one of those books I've been meaning to read for years and finally got around to, and I can't believe I waited so long. Simultaneously horrible and fascinating, this is so gripping that I literally read it in one sitting. I won't repeat the plot-line but at heart there are three stories in play: Sheba's sexual obsession with a 15-year old pupil; Barbara's own (sexual?) obsession with Sheba as told in her narrative that we are reading; and the story that Barbara doesn't tell us but which we glimpse through the interstices of her story.

I couldn't help but be reminded of the story of Troilus and Criseyde with Barbara as a twisted Pandarus figure: while she certainly doesn't facilitate Sheba's illicit relationship, she still inserts herself into it, making herself the third point of the classic erotic triangle while simultaneously inverting the pattern. Like Pandarus, she's not just the observer that she pretends to be, but is actually a participant and scripts her own role at the centre of the drama.

Also fascinating is the theme of motherhood and maternity, and the way it becomes twisted, tainted and corrupt in all kinds of ways. Overall this is a taut and tense read with the narrative drive and pace of a thriller, but the subtle nuances of something quite different. Highly recommended.
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on 29 March 2017
A simple if controversial story beautifully told with some gut wrenching raw emotions and observations.
A married school teacher, Sheba, becomes obssessed with a pupil while an older, single school teacher becomes obssessed with Sheba to distract herself from her desperate loneliness.
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