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October 2003

Foolish Lives

When love is not the answer

Notes on a Scandal ****
by Zoe Heller
Viking, 2003

Notes on a Scandal is both an entertaining and complex novel and one that proves, if proof be needed, that Zoe Heller is a truly excellent fiction writer. It is the story of a friendship between Barbara, a middle-aged schoolteacher working in London, and Sheba, a pottery teacher, who has recently taken up a position at the same school. Though, superficially, the newcomer, with her flowing, hippy-style clothes and chaotic classroom manner, appears to have little in common with the respectable and well-respected Barbara, underneath both women are desperate for friendship. Barbara’s only close relationship, we discover, is with a pet and Sheba is in a marriage that seems happy enough from the outside, but is in fact miserable and suffocating. When the latter slides into an affair with Connolly, a 15-year old student, she foolishly makes the older teacher her sole confidant. Inevitably the romance between student and teacher spins out of control and when the liaison finally becomes public knowledge Barbara is the only person left for Sheba to turn to.

Heller holds our attention by her skillful portrayal of Sheba’s relationship with her pupil and its development from relatively harmless beginnings to a disturbing and dangerous entanglement. At first Connolly seems to be genuinely interested in art and, flatteringly, in Sheba herself. And she is understandably touched by his sincerity, thrown as it is into sharp relief by the bored and crude behavior of his classmates. Emboldened, he attempts to kiss her, something she rejects with horror. Nonetheless, her rebuff is not all that it seems. Regard, even that of an adolescent boy, is nourishment for her starved soul and time spent with the boy is a welcome escape from her arrogant, academic husband, and cruel elder daughter. Heller allows her protagonists to move through the story unhindered by ethical judgements, thus enabling readers to reach their own conclusions about Sheba’s behavior—no mean achievement considering that Notes on a Scandal is actually Barbara’s account of the affair, a woman who, we gradually come to realize, is not only jealous, obsessive and lonely, but takes an unhealthy, voyeuristic interest in her friend’s troubles. As events unfold, she becomes an adept manipulator, using the secrets to which she is privy to gain power over her friend.

Connolly’s seduction of Sheba and her growing obsession with him, the slow development and complete turnaround of her relationship with Barbara, the resulting lies and intrigue, in all this Heller’s writing is nothing short of brilliant.

Eleven Minutes *
by Paulo Coelho
Harper Collins, 2003
Paulo Coelho has sold over 43 million books worldwide and is one of Brazil’s most popular authors. His best-known work, The Alchemist, has alone sold 14 million copies. Indeed, no doubt can be cast upon the popular appeal of Coelho’s writing. His most recent book, however, may leave many readers baffled and disappointed. If Eleven Minutes is your first taste of Coelho, it may also be your last. The chief protagonist is a beautiful Brazilian girl called Maria and the story centers around her tedious and vacuous teenage love life. An idealist to the point of stupidity, the girl’s one great wish is to fall madly in love, get married, have children and live in a home with a beautiful view. Instead she lurches from one dating disaster to the next, learning only that love is “something very dangerous and that the Virgin was a saint who inhabited a distant heaven and didn’t listen to the prayers of children.” Far from being put off by this insight however, Maria continues her search for perfect happiness and five pages on, we find her having her first orgasm—an experience she describes as “floating up to heaven and parachuting slowly down to earth again.” Pleasant though this may be, it brings her no closer to the earthly nirvana of a bourgeois life she has hoped for, so Maria heads for the bright lights of Rio, where she makes the acquaintance of a Swiss gentleman with whom she moves to Geneva. Here she turns to prostitution in order to realize her dream of becoming a rich woman.

Having got his heroine into this compromising position Coelho uses the opportunity to launch into a longwinded discourse on sex, at both a carnal and a spiritual level. Maria searches endlessly for the true meaning of love and in the meantime engages in sado-masochism with intellectual businessmen who are known as “special customers” at the Copacabana, a nightclub where she works. When Maria meets a handsome artist, she finds herself caught in the not very original dilemma of enjoying sex as a means of pure pleasure and wanting sex as an exhibition of love. Unfortunately, her experiences here are reduced to a bad teenage drama crossed with low-budget pornography.

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