Posted by: Jeanie F | April 25, 2011

Notes On a Scandal by Zoë Heller

I don’t much like reading a book after I’ve seen the movie – I feel at the mercy of the film’s interpretation, rather than the author’s. However, it’s been a long time since I saw the excellent Cate Blanchett/Judi Dench version of this story, so I thought I might not be overly influenced by it. Not so. Cate was Sheba, Judi, Barbara, as I read, but that wasn’t really such a bad thing.

In case you missed the film (and I highly recommend that you rent it, if you did), this is the story of Sheba (Bathsheba) Hart and Barbara Covett, high school teachers at St. George, a school in a lower class London neighborhood. Sheba is the newly hired pottery teacher; Barbara a very veteran history teacher. The two women are opposite in every way. Sheba is fey, artsy, wealthy (or as she puts it, “at most only upper middle class”). Barbara is a lonely spinster. There are hints at her attractions to women, but this is a storyline that was emphasized more in the film than the book.

The plot is pretty straightforward. Barbara, under the auspices of “mentoring” Sheba, worms her way into Sheba’s life. Sheba, married and the mother of two children, begins an affair with Connelly, a fifth-year student. Barbara does a lot of “tsk-tsking” about the situation, but it isn’t until Bangs, a male teacher, invites Barbara to lunch – raising her hopes of a possible romantic relationship, but in fact wanting to quiz Barbara on how to get Sheba’s attention – that the older woman lashes out and reveals the affair to him. Barbara’s been having a bad week: her cat is sick, Sheba has rejected her to meet with Connelly, and now Bangs, whom Barbara has seen as “a message of hope,” disappoints her. She immediately regrets her indiscretion, but she has set in motion the events that lead to both Sheba’s and her own downfall.

The story is told by Barbara who, after the affair becomes public and Sheba has been banned from the school and her family, begins to develop a timeline of the events (these are the “notes on a scandal”), putting gold stars by those she considers most significant. She says that this might be “helpful for the court case,” but Barbara is such an obviously unreliable narrator that, as readers, we cringe to think of her interpretation of events becoming public.

There are several interesting subtexts to this novel, the main one being the difference between how men and women are treated when found to have engaged in inappropriate relationships with minors. In Sheba’s case, the press is titillated, men view her not as a child molester but as a tramp, no one except Connelly’s mother sees him as a victim. The general consensus is that Connelly is one lucky boy.

This is a story that works on many levels, only occasionally dropping the ball on what is, ultimately, a fascinating psychological study of a bitter and disturbed woman. Joanna Briscoe, writing for The Guardian, says:

This is a fascinating, brilliant, irritating novel, consistently defying definition by genre, literary worth, or even purpose. It’s a quiet little read – yet horribly addictive. Underlying breathtakingly acute observations, and much fine writing, there’s a lightness of sentiment that sporadically propels the novel into the realms of commercial pap.

Personally, I wouldn’t go so far as to say “commercial pap,” but there are a few missteps, particularly where the interactions between Sheba and Connelly are addressed. Nevertheless, I found it an interesting, funny, sad, and thought-provoking read. I’d recommend it.

Grade A-


  1. I enjoyed this book…and the movie. This book was much better than another of Heller’s books, called The Believers.

    Thanks for sharing….

    • Laurel, I thought about buy The Believers, because I liked Notes so much. Thanks for saving me the $$!

  2. Thanks for your comments…sounds interesting.

  3. I enjoyed this book, although I haven’t seen the movie. Found it to be a page-turner, and I was continuously asking myself questions on the characters of both, Sheba and Barbara.

    What prompts someone with a supposedly happy life to risk it all for an affair with a mere adolescent? And, what’s Barbara’s end-game? And, why is society so hypocritical, that if the affair was between a 15 year old girl and a teacher, it would be disturbing, but when the genders are reversed, it makes it… not justifiable… but not as disturbing (if you know what I mean?)?

    • Yes – LOTS of unanswered questions to ponder! Barbara was by far the most interesting character – such love/hate for Sheba. As for the affair, I think the common assumption is that most 15-year old boys would not feel exploited by having sex with an attractive young teacher… they WOULD feel lucky!

      And don’t you love Barbara’s last name – she DOES covet (and resent) the life that Sheba leads!

      Rent the movie, Cookie – it’s great!

  4. I have seen the film and I did enjoy it but I did feel a little grubby afterwards LOL

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