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What Was She Thinking?

Awards: Man Booker Award - Nominee, Novel

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About The Author

Zoë Heller

Zoë Heller was born in London and lives in New York City. Currently a columnist for London's Daily Telegraph, she has contributed to such publications as Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The Independent, The Sunday Times (London), and The New Republic. She is also the author of... More


Man Booker Award - Nominee, Novel

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Reading Group Gold

1. There has traditionally been a taboo on older

women/younger men relationships. In the

novel, the news media describes the affair

between Sheba and Connolly as

“despicable” and “unhealthy.” Why do you

think it has historically been viewed this way?

Do you agree?

2. Heller expertly captures the insulating and

sometimes claustrophobic atmosphere of

academia. Give examples of this, and

discuss the differences and similarities

between Sheba and Barbara that brought

them to teach at the same institution.

3. Connolly’s unabashed admiration and

innocence prove irresistible to Sheba. How

are Connolly’s attentions much different from

the oglings of her academic colleagues since

both indicate that they find her sexually

attractive? Why is one so much more


4. What makes a woman like Sheba behave so

irresponsibly? How easy was it for her to risk

everything for the danger of the relationship?

Does Sheba really think about the

consequences of her actions?

5. Why does Sheba’s friendship with Sue

Hodges seem so ill-founded to Barbara? Why

would Sheba choose Sue as her confidant—

she never mentions Connolly’s visits to Sue.

How does Barbara seduce Sheba away from


6. Barbara observes that Connolly’s overt effort

to please Sheba is like ‘the cynicism of all

courtship.” Discuss what she means by this.

7. Barbara asks why Sheba insists on seeing

Connolly as gifted and extraordinary in a sea

of fairly ordinary, untalented students. Does

the element of class exacerbate the

forbidden nature of the relationship? Is

Connolly exploiting this? What is his

culpability in the situation?

8. Why, when Barbara seems like such a prim

and formal person, is she initially so

sympathetic to Sheba’s predicament? Why is

she not appalled? She says she thinks that

Connolly is actually benefiting from the

relationship, not being abused by it. Is it her

desire for Sheba’s friendship or pure feminist

support? Does she take vicarious pleasure

in it?

9. What is Barbara’s reaction when she finally

finds out about the affair? Is this the cause of

her betrayal? Does it lead to her punishment

at St. George’s? Does Barbara have the right

to set down the events in writing? Discuss

how their friendship provides as fertile

ground for mutual misunderstanding,

jealousy, and treachery as does the illicit

love affair.

10. The story is finally about the two women,

and the many facets of female friendship.

Discuss the ways in which Heller’s device of

having Barbara tell the story serves to enrich

the novel by revealing both women’s

emotional lives.

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