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26th May
written by Steph

Many moons ago, I wrote something that prompted myriads of book bloggers to recommend that I read Notes on a Scandal by Zöe Heller. It may have been when I wrote my review of her most recent novel, The Believers, but I think the recommendations stemmed from even earlier. What’s really important here, however, is that tons of people told me that I should read this book because it was awesome and I would love it, and after I read and enjoyed The Believers, I completely believed that was the truth. If you were one of those people who told me to read this book, then consider this a big thank-you because you were indeed right. I have now read Notes on a Scandal and it was everything I hoped it would be (and more!). From the very beginning, NoaS starts of with a bang. Through the diary of Barbara Covett, an elderly teacher at a local comprehensive school, we learn that her colleague and good friend Sheba has been charged with having a sexual affair with one of her students, a 15-year-old boy named Steven Connolly. Barbara shares with us how her relationship with Sheba evolved as well as how she gained knowledge of the affair and how she and Sheba have been dealing with the fallout following its revelation. The topic of a teacher-student relationship is salacious enough that many readers would probably be drawn to the novel for that reason alone, but for those who find such subject matter distasteful or vulgar, I must assure you that there are plenty of other wonderful reasons to read this book. Before I even picked up this book I suspected that it would be exceedingly well written because I already knew from past experience just how deft and sharp a writer Heller is, but even I must admit to being surprised by how deep this story was. I did not at all expect the layers that were added to the story by having Barbara rather than Sheba as the narrator, and having that lens as the means by which to view Sheba’s downward spiral was truly fascinating and added a completely different dimension to the book. By adding Barbara into the mix, Heller manages to infuse the story with a layer of creepiness that would otherwise not exist. Barbara is perhaps one of the most beguiling renditions of the “unreliable narrator” that I’ve encountered to date; even before having concrete reasons as to why I should distrust her (or at least take her renditions of accounts with a whopping handful of salt), there was something about the tone of her writing that immediately made me uneasy, which I think is truly a testament to Heller’s powers as a writer.  It is soon clear that there is more to the story than what Barbara is telling, but at times I had the sense that Barbara herself might not be entirely aware of her own motives and inclinations. At times she is willfully malicious, that is true, but she is not a one-dimensional “evil” character who is driven solely by the desire to destroy. There is something deeper to her — she is a fullbodied character — and there are moments when it feels that what is held back is done so only because Barbara herself does not know of her own biases and inner nature. Heller does not feel compelled to overexplain, but leaves the reader to draw her own conclusion, and by doing so, enhances the feeling of disquiet that pervades the novel. It is true that NoaS is a book about inappropriate relationships, but as we soon learn, such a descriptor is not solely limited to Sheba and Steven. Single and childless (a spinster, if you will), Barbara is a force to be reckoned with and the dynamic between her and Sheba is easily as unsettling as the one between Sheba and Steven, even if the exact nature of Barbara’s feelings for Sheba are never made explicit by Heller. Still the parallels between the mother-child relationship between the two (as well as between Sheba and Steven) were very clever to explore and, of course, also rather disturbing. I was curious to see how such a formidable novel would be translated to the screen, since I felt like so much of the novel’s success lay in the fact that we are circumscribed to Barbara’s perspective. Happily, I can say that the film version of NoaS is wonderfully successful, especially in terms of capturing the troubling relationship between Barbara and Sheba. It actually goes further in terms of making Barbara’s behaviors and attitudes more alarming, but I felt that these changes were true to the spirit of the novel and it was interesting to see how the filmmakers chose to highlight what is one of the more sinister and hidden frightening bits of the novel. If you’ve read the book, I highly recommend checking out the film version starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench (both of whom give marvelous performances that truly bring Sheba and Barbara off the page). And if you haven’t read the book? Don't be as foolish as I was and wait so long to check it out! It is truly one of the best psychological thrillers I’ve been lucky enough to read. The plotting, the writing, the conceptualization are all magnificent and combine to create a deliciously wicked read. This may very well be Heller’s masterpiece and is a book well worth reading. I raced through it, trying desperately to pace myself and enjoy the writing and the atmosphere Heller was building, but I admit, I finished this book in just two short days.  Now I’m looking forward to reading Heller’s first novel, Everything You Know, should I ever find a copy of it. I’m happy to wait to find it, though, since I’d hate to be without a new Heller novel to read! Rating: 4.5 out of 5


  1. 05/26/2011

    Great review of this book, which I disliked, but only because it was so good and so sharp and everyone was so unlikable! Barbara was so, so, sosososososo the creepy one I think, the real predator, and it was SO sketchy/awesome all at once.

  2. I’m so pleased that you loved this one – it is one of my all-time favourites! I was a bit worried when you enjoyed The Believers so much as they are such different books, but I’m pleased that it worked for you.

    I loved the film too – it is one of those rare occasions when both the film and book are fantastic. If you loved this then I highly recommend Rupture (Thousand Cuts in US) because they have similar thought-provoking depth.

  3. 05/26/2011

    Yay!! I feel like breaking out into applause here, seriously! I agree with EVERYTHING you said!!

  4. 05/26/2011

    I loved this one too. You can google an interview with Heller about the book. Although in the movie it was depicted that Barbara had homosexual feelings towards Sheba that wasn’t at all what Heller intended in the book. It’s more about female jealousy and friendship. Barbara was jealous of Sheba in every way.

  5. 05/26/2011

    Mrs. B — that’s so interesting because in my read of the book, I totally felt there was a predatory lesbian vibe to Barbara’s behavior!

  6. 05/26/2011

    Yay! I’m so glad you liked this one, Steph! Your review of it was spot on! This is such a good book – a definite must read! And the movie was great, too!

  7. 05/26/2011

    I am so glad you liked this one! It is one of my favorites of the year so far. My book club is reading it for our next meeting, so I am hoping we can get a copy of the movie to watch then.

  8. 05/31/2011

    @ Audra: I am one of those people who really doesn’t need to find any of the characters in a book sympathetic in order to enjoy it, so I think I was the ideal candidate for this book! As long as the writing is sharp, I don’t mind if the characters are too! 😀
    @ Jackie: How fortuitous that you recommended Rupture, because I’m planning to read that really soon! I’ll keep this book in mind as I read!
    @ Amanda: I know this is one of your favorites, so I’m so glad I liked it too! One to shelve on “the best” in GoodReads rather than “the worst”! 😉
    @ Mrs. B: I’ll have to look for that Heller interview, so thanks for bringing it to my attention. I could see the homosexual element going either way – it certainly wasn’t explicit in the book, but I could understand how some readers would feel there was a predatory vibe about Barbara that was sexual in nature… Just look at Audra’s reaction!
    @ Nadia: I know you loved this one, so I was really excited to read it too. Such a great book!
    @ Stephanie: I’m sure this will be one of my top reads of 2011 too… and I think this would be a great book club book. So much to discuss and debate.

  9. 05/27/2011

    I’ve read an interview with Heller in which she said the director of the movie wanted to soften the ending by making sure that someone had learned something or made some sort of journey. Without spoiling the book (I’ve seen the movie): are the ends very different?

  10. 05/27/2011

    I’ve not read Heller’s novels but she used to write very good newspaper columns. I’m intrigued by your review Steph – putting this on the tbr list.

  11. 05/29/2011

    Oh, I am so glad that you read and loved this one! I remember that it left quite an impression on me when I read it several years ago. I also saw the movie, and while I liked it and thought it was pretty faithful to the book, I think I liked the book just a tad better. I do think that the movie was perfectly cast though. I agree with you that it was probably one of the best suspense novels that I have ever read. Great review!

  12. 05/30/2011

    Wonderful review, Steph! I have just heard of Zöe Heller but haven’t read any of her books. This looks like a fascinating book! It was made into a movie with Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench? How awesome! I am sure their performances were amazing! I don’t know whether I should read the novel first or watch the movie firsst – the movie looks so tempting 🙂

  13. 05/31/2011

    @ Alex: You know, I don’t recall the ending of the book being very different from the film. I didn’t really feel like the movie had a softened ending, at least not relative to the book… If there were differences between the two, they certainly didn’t jump out at me.
    @ Nicola: I can only imagine how engaging Heller must have been as a newspaper columnist… I think you’d like this one, even if it is not at all a feel-good read! 😉
    @ zibilee: Given how good the book was, I think I was just surprised to see that the movie could captures so much of the novel’s tension and subtlety. It may not be as good as the book (some have argued its better!), but it’s certainly one of the better book-to-movie transitions I’ve seen.
    @ Vishy: Cate and Judi really knocked it out of the park; I felt they really inhabited the characters they were portraying and gave incredibly nuanced performances. I personally always try to read books before seeing the movies, but the movie is really good so I don’t blame you if you decide to start with that!
    @ anothercookiecrumbles: I thought the movie was really well done, but if you’ve read the book, then you have a good idea of what you’d be in for with the film version. I liked seeing the book brought to life, but if movies aren’t your thing then I’m glad you at least experienced the book!
    @ mee: Oh, you must read this book! You will love it!

  14. Great review. I haven’t read The Believers, but I loved this book. I’ve not seen the movie, but I think I’ll be perfectly happy to skip it. Not a movie fan.

  15. mee

    I’m totally convinced that I need to read this now. It’s always somewhat on the horizon but there was no current raving review that pushed me over the edge yet. Yours is it! I just skimmed through the middle part of the review but will come back once I read the book.

  16. kay

    Oh I’m so happy you enjoyed it this much Steph! It was one of my favorite books last year, and easily one of my top ten books, ever. Your review was much more eloquent than mine and I agree with every word of it. I haven’t seen the movie yet, I’ll admit I was a bit scared it would ruin it for me, but now I’m thinking I will give it a chance.

  17. 06/02/2011

    Thanks for the movie review, Steph! I can’t wait to watch it now 🙂

  18. 06/06/2011

    So happy you think that way of it. I knew it was a book that you would love. Don’t know why. I based it on your love for Coetzee’s Disgrace, probably. I haven’t seen the movie but I will, thanks to you! (I had been afraid to see it before for some reason. Now I don’t see what for.)

  19. 06/07/2011

    @ kay: I remember reading your review of this one last year and being really excited by it! I definitely think the movie is worth checking out; it certainly won’t ruin the book for you!
    @ Vishy: I hope you do check it out and let me know what you think!
    @ kiss a could: I remember you telling me I would love this one (though it is an odd comparison to Disgrace, no? 😉 ), and I knew you would not steer me wrong! Check out the movie: you will love it!

  20. 07/06/2011

    Haven’t seen the movie or read the book. I know I am seriously missing out 🙁

  21. 07/10/2011

    @ Nishita: You are, you are! You simply must experience at least one of them! 😀

  22. 07/11/2011

    I loved this book when I read it about 7 years ago. I think I will have to give it a reread at some point as your review has made me think about it again. Barbara was such a brilliant character, wasn’s she?

  23. 07/12/2011

    @ Book Whisperer: Yes, Barbara was so awesome and I really feel like Dame Judi Dench did such a marvelous job with the character in the film. Certainly one of the most memorable characters I’ve read in a long time!

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