June 10, 2015
Just Read and Watched || Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller
'Notes on a Scandal' is a delightful and scandalous novel filled with snobbery and malice, and it is also deliciously sinister, especially coupled with the film version.
I enjoyed 'Notes on a Scandal' immensely and could hardly put it down once I started reading it. Barbara Covett is a spinster teacher who becomes a sort of mentor and friend for Sheba Hart, to whom Sheba reveals her secret about an illicit love affair she is having with one of her charges, a 15-year-old pupil named Steven Connolly. But as we learn more about the characters we see that Barb is her surname anthropomorphised. She covets everything beautiful; however, at the same time she looks down her nose at it and this makes her a most interesting character.
Barb is at once the jealous and overprotective matriarch and the manipulative bully. She weasels her way into Sheba Hart's life and trust by very carefully not speaking her mind unless it is to deride other persons she loathes, a scheme she uses to isolate the person she has her eye on. Although she is at first flattered and ecstatic that she is the only person who knows Sheba's secret, her desire to be the only person to whom Sheba turns and her attempt to isolate her from her family and lover fails - at first. Sheba does not realise the friend she has in Barb: a treacherous woman with a past only hinted at in the book.
Sheba is not innocent either, while she often claims to be a victim of circumstance. She blames her early marriage for a lack of worldly experience and believes Steven's pursual of her a gift - she had not been courted for many years. While her relationship with Barb is hinged on this secret and on the power Barb has, when she is discovered Sheba refuses to see the hypocrisy of her actions. This is a theme for the novel, as the characters can all not see their own hypocrisy as they judge and raise their snouts.
Many critics of the novel say it was difficult to become emotionally attached to any of the characters because they were all filled with this characteristic, but I loved them all, especially Barbara. No matter who we are we will always look down on others in our minds - that is just something that makes us human. And that is the point: these characters are as real as they can get. There is no pretense that what they are doing is motivated by anything else but human nature.
The novel is also a frightening look at the effect loneliness can have on a person. Barbara, Sheba, Polly, Steven, Sue, Richard - they are all lonely in their own ways and it is a testament to how quickly overcoming this emotion can change our lives.
The undercurrent of romantic feeling that Barbara has towards Sheba was also difficult to pin down. While she indulged in the closeness of Sheba and we read about the uncanny moment where she tickles Sheba's arm, she is nevertheless disappointed when fellow teacher Bangs is not interested in her. Perhaps this was just an indication of how lonely Barbara was - anything will do - and is reflected when she muses about how people like Sheba did not know what it was like to go to bed at night without being touched.
In contrast, I found the film more sinister, especially with regards to Barbara. She was more malevolent in her actions and she seemed more aware of what her obsessions meant for her relationships. Sheba, meanwhile, is painted as the innocent victim of Barbara's plots: whereas in the novel the breaking point of their relationship is Sheba running off to be with Steven, in the film she is heading to one of her children's school events. This is just one example where the audience is made to feel more badly for Sheba. [Spoilers to follow if you haven't seen the film] Even more disturbing was Barbara's purposeful revelation that Sheba was sleeping with a young boy, the truth of what happened with Barbara's former friend Jennifer, the vitriolic terms with which Sheba reprimanded Barbara when she found out, and then that very final scene where Barbara begins stalking a new victim.
These events certainly paint Barbara as a more sociopathic personality than the book does and I almost feel that in a way it is generalising about older, lonely women not only being lesbians but also being lonely to the point of madness.
I most definitely enjoyed the novel more than the film, simply because of the real insight Heller gives us into Barbara's mind, something that is lacking in her rendition onscreen. I rather liked her character because she felt real: bitter, disillusioned, snobbish, hypocritical... and yet her loneliness was stark and touching.
'Notes on a Scandal' is certainly up there with my favourite novels.