rating: 4 of 5 stars
If there is one book a single woman in her 30s should not read, it’s this one. Not that I’m in my 30s, of course, but I have always been told my maturity exceeds my age, so for all intents and purposes, I may as well be 30. I hang out with people in their 30s. Who have husbands. And ex-husbands. And children.
In any case, the reason no single middle-aged woman should read this book is because it so poignantly depicts the lonely, solitary life of its protagonist. Yet the novel itself is not depressing, primarily because it is not telling the story of the protagonist. Instead, the protagonist—also the narrator—is Barbara, a retirement-aged schoolteacher, telling the story of an affair between a much younger coworker, Sheba, and one fifteen-year-old student, Conley. The story of this affair, ultimately, is what drives the novel. However, what the core of this novel is truly about is Barbara: how attached she grows to Sheba, the reasons for her attachment, her abilities to observe and live in a world where she feels she is no longer deemed a participant.
This prospect—to be “already done with life” at age sixty, with no children to occupy your time, no husband to take up your attention, no family to give you a social life and connect you to the community—is horrifying. It is particularly horrifying to a young-ish single woman who is living on her own, with no dating prospects, who is watching her friends one-by-one get married, move into houses, have children. The terror this book invokes, however, is only so real because the book is so well-written. So if you are at a different place in life, or if you think you can weather the self-imposed depression such narration might incite, then I encourage you to pick up this book. It is full of thought-provoking moral ambiguities, in part due to the ages of the characters (15, 30, 60), in part due to the roles they play (wily, heartless young suitor; accused seductress/ spurned lover; cynical, ambivalent, self-pitying storyteller), but primarily because the affair is documented from a third-person point of view, and a subjective point of view that insists it is trying to be objective, at that.
What Was She Thinking has many levels, which is what give me such respect for it. That I felt such a strong reaction makes me respect it even more, regardless of if my reaction was depression, as opposed to elation. The bottom line is, Heller writes well, and this is probably one of the few novels that demonstrates a new way of treating the tired topic of love affairs.
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