Notes on a Scandal

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“Notes on a Scandal” by Zoe Heller
(First publication: 2003 / This edition: Penguin Books 2009)
Taken with flowers Mom got for me

Things that are truly innocent don’t need to be labelled as such. (p.49)

This is one of those books that immediately grasps you and keeps you anxious until the end. I still feel a bit antsy, even though it’s been 15 hours since I finished it. Zoe Heller’s writing style is very compelling and keeps you on the edge of your seat. I read it in two days, and even when I went out and took the train, I kept wishing the train would go slower so that I could read more before I reach my station.

I didn’t know much about this book before I ordered it—just had an a inkling that it might be “disturbing”, since the title refers to a scandal. I knew it was made into a movie and Cate Blanchett is in it. (I love her.) Planning to watch it soon.

Barbara is an aging woman close to retirement, who’s always lived alone with her cat and teaches at a school in England. She didn’t really have a social life until this middle-aged woman, Sheba, joins the school. The closer they became and the more trust they have with each other, the more Barbara felt it was her responsibility to take care of Sheba. She develops a sort of obsession and possessiveness over Sheba—thinking it was her duty to make every call and to be involved in all of Sheba’s issues. Meanwhile, Sheba has an affair with an underage student and they become “in love”. Sheba becomes obsessive and love drives her to madness. (…understandable. Oh, “Love.”)

The story is told from Barbara’s perspective. The scandal is, of course, about Sheba and the boy—the “inappropriateness” and “perverseness” of it all. However, the more Barbara reveals about Sheba’s affair, the more she reveals about her own flaws and hypocrisy. It becomes questionable that Barbara might actually be a repressed lesbian.

The story actually tackles a lot of societal and moral issues. It explores sexuality and the limitations of what society has deemed for the meanings of “love” and “sex”. It questions the “inappropriateness” of Sheba’s sexual relationship with the underage boy; the desire is mutual and the boy actually has power over Sheba. Another issue brought up is “loneliness”—which is clear in Barbara’s case: a spinster who seems to drown in her solitude and “lack of meaning in life”.

Like I said, this book had be hooked from the very beginning and it was hard for me to put down. Zadie Smith commented that it’s “Brilliant, nasty, gripping”. The Observer said it’s “Compelling, dark, sexy”. However, I feel like I had higher expectations. Not to sound all creepy or freakish, but I do like those dark and gnarly stories from time to time—they explore the more disturbing parts of human psychology and that’s always interesting. I guess I was expecting “Notes on a Scandal” to be more vulgar. As I read, my mind kept flitting to Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”. The stories aren’t too similar, but the whole “fornication with an underage” theme is principal in both. “Lolita” is just…more intense and darker. Humbert Humbert’s desperation just feels heavier—I was pretty much in my “cringing” position throughout the book but then felt so depressed and sorry for him at the end. With “Notes on a Scandal”, I just felt pissed off. But then again, to compare this to “Lolita” is like comparing a cocktail to a shot of tequila—both “wild” and “intoxicating”, but “Lolita” just gives you that better oomph. 

The story still really put me in a mood though—there’s not a single character in the story that I actually like. You kind of just want to slap everyone. Every character is complex. I find Barbara’s relationship with Sheba to be more disturbing that Sheba’s relationship with the teenager actually. This is my first Zoe Heller and I’m already a fan of her writing style—I love how it makes me want to devour it in one sitting. I’d recommend this book—but read “Lolita” first, if you haven’t already.

…..

Here are some of my favorite lines from the book:

Things that are truly innocent don’t need to be labelled as such. (p.49)

Being in love is like a condition, isn’t it? It’s like being depressed. Or like being in a cult. You’re basically under water—people can talk to you about life on dry land, but it doesn’t really mean anything… (p.161)

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