Saturday, February 28, 2009


NOTES ON A SCANDAL, by Zoe Heller: Picked this one up off the shelf at the library when I couldn't find any of the five Ben Elton books that were on said shelf a couple weeks before, primarily because the word "Scandal" in the title caught my attention. It's a creepy little book, actually. I keep thinking of it as a thematic complement to Let The Right One In (the movie, not the book, which more or less explicitly ascribes character motives open to interpretation in the film). As I interpret(ed) them, both stories are about a predatory figure who seduces another character into serving their needs. The major difference (genre conventions aside) is that while Let The Right One In is told primarily from the viewpoint of the character being seduced, Notes on a Scandal is presented entirely from the perspective of the seducer.

That seducer is a desperately lonely teacher named Barbara Covett. The role of Barbara was played by Judi Dench in the movie that was apparently made based on the novel a couple years back. Knowing who played the role in the film actually made the reading experience much more enjoyable--I don't know if Heller knew who'd be playing the character in advance, but the officious, self-serving words are a perfect match for the actress. I read pretty much the entire book in her voice (if that makes any sense) and suspect enjoyed the experience more because of it.

A spinster control freak who, well into if not past middle age is possibly/probably still a virgin, Barbara's dealt with her social ineptitude by reframing it as a strength: if nobody likes her, that's clearly because they're at fault and not because she's a cold, self-righteous bitch. Having recently lost her previous friend (she apparently develops/gets her claws into them one at a time), she's on the lookout for someone to fill that role. That someone turns out to be the new pottery teacher, Sheba Hart, a late 30/early 40-something who has all sorts of romantic notions about what she can realistically accomplish in terms of getting her public school students to appreciate the arts.

Barbara works, consciously and otherwise, to isolate Sheba from others, increasingly forcing her to rely on Barbara and Barbara alone for support.

That said, Sheba is largely a victim of her own ill-thought-out designs. Young and energetic, married with a kid, she engages in some arguably predatory social acts of her own when she embarks on an affair with a fifteen year old kid. Sheba's actions are not presented in as dark a light as they could be. It could be argued that she's a habitual victim, being taken advantage of first by Barbara and then by the "Connolly boy", who, having grown bored of her, shrugs her off, just when she needs all the support she can get. Of course, those actions are described entirely by her sympathetic "friend" (who, for all intents and purposes, provides the only support she gets, whatever the motives), so the reader is left to decide for him/herself whether Sheba's actions are sinister or simply as presented: naive and pathetic.


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