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WHAT WAS SHE THINKING?

Zoe Heller, Author
Zoe Heller, Author . Holt $23 (258p) ISBN 978-0-8050-7333-1
Paperback - 288 pages - 978-0-312-42199-1
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A starred or boxed review indicates a book of outstanding quality. A review with a blue-tinted title indicates a book of unusual commercial interest that hasn't received a starred or boxed review.

WHAT WAS SHE THINKING?Zoë Heller. Holt, $23 (288p) ISBN 0-8050-7333-7

Subtitled Notes on a Scandal, Heller's engrossing second novel (after Everything You Know) is actually the story of two inappropriate obsessions—one a consummated affair between a high school teacher and her student, the other a secret passion harbored by a dowdy spinster. Sheba Hart, a new 40ish art teacher at a London school for working-class kids, has been arrested for having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old student, Steven Connolly. The papers are having a blast. Sheba is herself the object of fascination for her older colleague and defender, Barbara Covett, whose interest in Sheba is not overtly romantic but has an erotic—and at times malevolent—intensity. Barbara narrates the story of Sheba's affair while inadvertently revealing her own obsession and her pivotal role in the scandal. The novel is gripping from start to finish; Heller brings vivid, nuanced characterizations to the racy story. Sheba is upper-class, arty, carelessly beautiful in floaty layers of clothing, with a full life of her own: doting older husband, impossible adolescent daughter, a son with Down's Syndrome, real if underdeveloped talent as a potter. She never got a driver's license, she tells Barbara, because she is always given rides; people want to do things for her. Barbara's respectable maiden-lady exterior hides a bitter soul that feasts on others' real and imagined shortcomings: one colleague's carelessly shaved armpits, another's risible baseball jacket. Even characters on stage for a minute (a Camden barman who hams it up for Barbara) live and breathe. Author tour. (Aug.)

Forecast:Some readers will pass this up as yet another take on the shopworn theme of student/teacher romance, but Heller's light touch will win over others and please reviewers.

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