Picks and Pans Review: What Was She Thinking?

updated 08/18/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/18/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

By Zoë Heller

If there were a Spinster Schoolteachers Hall of Fame, Barbara Covett would be in it. In this clever novel of social commentary and dangerous obsession, Covett, the narrator, is an unwittingly laughable snob, yet she is as emotionally mature as a schoolgirl. Just when you're ready to dismiss her, though, her sad, lonely side emerges. Readers will debate whether she is evil, pathetic or an unhealthy mix of the two as she becomes a factor in a colleague's love affair with a 15-year-old student.

Heller offers a piercing look at a basic human failing: It's easier to criticize others than to look honestly at ourselves. But Covett's voice grows tiresome; life can be bleak on the crabby side of the street. (Holt, $23)

BOTTOM LINE: Smart but shallow

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