Zoe Heller – Notes On A Scandal

20May09


Who doesn’t love a good juicy scandal? The type that makes its way to the tabloids, and has everyone talking about it, and judging the protagonists of the impropriety. Everyone has an opinion, and more oft’ than not, it’s judging the miscreants. Society. Business as usual. 

So, what’s the scandal? One newspaper headlines read:

Sex Teacher Passes Her Orals With Flying Colours

while another read:

Teacher Takes Keen Interest In Student Body. 

I’m sure you’ve heard about it: a teacher having an illicit affair with one of her high school students. Or, in this case, a happily married forty-one year old having an affair with a fifteen year old. 

But, the narrator isn’t Sheba Hart, the forty-one year old teacher. Nor is it Steven Connolly, the student. Instead, it’s Barbara Covett – a sixty-something year old woman, who has never married. Barbara is Sheba’s friend, her defender, if you like. The Sun refers to her as the saucy school teacher’s spin-doctor, despite the fact that she has had forty years of experience as a teacher, and has never been associated with anything scandalous prior to this. 

So, what prompts someone like Barbara to act as Sheba’s defender? When Sheba walks into the school for the first time, Barbara feels like she’s found her ‘kindred spirit’. Jealousy overcomes her when she discovers that Sheba has befriended Susan, another teacher who Barbara dislikes. In fact, as the book progresses, the reader comes to find Barbara as an increasingly judgmental condescending character, who has a superiority complex, coupled with some major inhibitions about being single. She’s overbearing, clingy, and tends to drive people away. Yet, her extremely high opinion of herself, and the way she manages to justify all her acts almost makes the reader feel sorry for her delusions of grandeur. 

Barbara uses gold stars to mark the timeline of her friendship with Sheba, in her notes; notes that she’s writing in order to help Sheba’s looming court case. She’s almost subservient to Sheba, as she cooks for her, and looks after her, and takes great delight in Sheba’s increasing dependence on her. Don’t worry – these are not spoilers. In fact, this book is written retrospectively, so the thriller aspect of it is minimal. At the very outset, we know where the protagonists stand, and what has happened. 

Barbara (and subsequently, the reader) struggles to understand Sheba’s infatuation with this semi-literate adolescent, who is marginally artistic. She has a devoted husband, a rebellious attractive teenage daughter, and a son with Downs’ syndrome. Barbara at one point says that she’d bet they were happily married, and even according to Sheba, they are. In my opinion, what instigates Sheba is a combination of the innocence the boy has, as well as the adventure that a fling like this brings: sex sessions in Hampsted Heath (I kid you not!), meeting at his place when his parents are away, smuggling him into her basement studio, and finding some time in her art studio at school, where they drew the curtains…. Sheba isn’t an idiot. She knows what the consequences of her actions are, if found out. But, that doesn’t stop her. Incredible that people are ready to risk their entire life (as they know it) because someone finds them attractive, at a time when they’re vulnerable to feeling otherwise due to a mid-life crisis of sorts.  

Why, then, was Sheba moved to such an extravagant estimate of his virtues? Why did shr insist on seeing him as her little Helen Keller in a sea of Yahoos. The papers will tell you that Sheba’s judgment was clouded by desire: she was attracted to Connolly, and in order to explain that attraction, she convinced herself that he was some kind of genius. 

This is a fascinating gripping story of betrayal, sex, and infatuation. It’s not a thriller, but yet you can’t let go, and you’re compelled to turn each page, and consume it all. It’s well-written, funny at times, perverse, thought-provoking (specially in the beginning where they discuss why a woman being the deviant is funny, whereas if it was a man and a fifteen year old girl, it would be disturbing. Guess there is an element of truth in that), and truly shocking. Barbara’s tone throughout the book is matter-of-fact and to the point, with minimal padding and meandering. So, while it’s not as emotive as you’d expect it to be, it still makes a great read. 

Overall, four stars. 

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7 Responses to “Zoe Heller – Notes On A Scandal”

  1. I loved this book! It was such a page turner! I’ve got her other books here – I’m not sure why I haven’t got round to reading them yet, but your review has reminded me how good her writing is, and encouraged me to move one of them to the top of the TBR pile.

  2. 2 uncertainprinciples

    It’s the first book by her that I’ve read. Definitely going to read more – hoping they’re all as provocative and well-written as this one.

  3. 3 LarryKonner

    Not my favorite, then again, looks like she isn’t my favorite either…and I am her husband! She doesn’t have the structure, or character to be a novelist and quite frankly, as she always asks for my help in her writings, I am sad to have not been able to “aid” her on this novel.

    • 4 uncertainprinciples

      That’s a little harsh, considering the book was nominated for the Booker as well. I guess that’s the thing about books: one man’s meat…

      Am quite curious to know what you prefer/what’s your favorite?

  4. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen an author’s husband leave a comment!

  5. 6 mee

    And a negative one at that…


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