Book review – Notes on a Scandal


Notes on a Scandal (c) Zoë Heller, 2003

Well, the title of the book is pretty self-explanatory, I suppose. There was a scandal, and someone is writing down notes regarding it.

The scandal being an illicit affair between a 40 year-old pottery teacher named Sheba Hart, and a 15 year-old somewhat problematic student named Steven Connolly, and the notes being a sort of reflection on the whole subject given by the teacher’s fellow colleague and self-proclaimed BFF and defender, Barbara Covett, who writes them after the so-called affair has hit the legal and media frenzy fan.

“What the…?!” You might be (rightfully) saying to yourself. If that is the case, it would be wise to let you know the novel is actually way weirder than it sounds, although half of its weirdness is not even due to the affair portrayed in it between the teacher and the pupil.

No, most of the bizarre elements of the novel can be directly attributed to its sinister characters. I mean, talk about a collection of nutcases! Any psychologist could write an entire thesis on the psyche of most of them and have a field day.

Between chronically immature Sheba, her pseudo-intellectual husband Richard, her defiant daughter Polly, her detached mother Mrs. Taylor, her myriad of oddball colleagues at St. George’s school, her not so innocent or gullible lover Steven, and her sociopathic-ish ‘friend’ and confident Barbara, there is enough material to write a manual on psychological pathologies.

And yet none of the sinister qualities of these characters are remarkably obvious at first, particularly in the case of Barbara Covett, who doubles as the story’s (it turns out, not entirely reliable) narrator.

Barbara claims at the beginning of the novel to be taking notes on the scandal as a way to refute the excessive negative press Sheba has received since the affair first broke out to the public. Whether Barbara ever intended to have her notes published is unclear, but her altruistic claim is quickly subject to question when you realize she seems to be writing her account on the affair more for her own personal enjoyment than anything else.

If her unusual choice for a hobby is not enough to make you frown, knowing that Barbara is taking the trouble to construct a timeline graph to accompany her notes, where she marks out and highlights with stickers the pivotal moments of the Sheba-Connolly affair, might just do the trick.

You see, Notes on a Scandal is one of those novels that can confuse the readers regarding its intent, if they first pick it up without knowing what they are really about to dive into. If this definition fits you,  then you will probably start reading the novel thinking it simply relates to an illicit, forbidden and downright appalling romance between two people of very different generations and to its unavoidable repercussions, only to realize midway through the book that you are actually reading a story regarding an obsessive and twisted friendship fueled by a very disturbed and lonely individual.

Because Notes on a Scandal is also an interesting exploration of the themes of loneliness and self-repression and of the negative effects they can have on a person (even if these are portrayed in the novel in a somewhat extreme fashion).

Regarding the writing style, you will probably agree that Barbara’s choice of wording is very eloquent and versed, even if at times annoying, given that she has a tendency to use words that have gone out of use about 100 years ago. Whether this peculiarity derived from Zoë Heller’s wish to further enhance and illustrate the narrator’s singularity, or was simply driven by the author’s own little perverse desire to make us read her novel with a dictionary at hand, I have no clue. But who the hell uses words such as ‘mendacity’ nowadays?! And I swear, if there was an eloquent synonym for ‘tablecloth’, we’d find it somewhere in the novel.

+: It is an interesting, wickedly entertaining, darkly funny and exquisitely well written novel.
-: I found the ending to be a bit lackluster, but given the main theme of the novel, I suppose it does offer a satisfactory conclusion to the plotline. Also, the majority of the characters are absolutely loathsome, not because they are badly written in any way, but because it’s downright impossible to sympathize with them. Still, they are one hell of an entertaining bunch to read about!

Where to buy online:

Publisher: Penguin (Penguin Ink Collection)
Format: Paperback – 244 pages
ISBN: 978-0-241-95455-3