Thursday, March 25, 2010

Book Review: Notes on a Scandal

I received Notes on a Scandal as a white elephant gift for Christmas. Turns out, it was the opposite of a useless white elephant (a black mouse?)--it's a beautifully written psychological case study. I loved it because it's not really about what it is ostensibly about--a forty-ish woman having an illicit affair with an under-age student; rather, it narrates the sometimes subtle, always disturbing socio-pathology of a controlling, narcissistic, messiah-complected personality.

It's brilliant.

What's amazing to me is that someone read this book and saw movie potential in it. I haven't seen the movie, but the story is so acutely internal--there are literally NO explosions!--that I cannot even fathom how a movie translation would do it justice. (I hear it does, though.)

Barbara Covett (her name, and the names of other major characters, represent intentional literary allusions) is the intensely observant, randomly opinionated, pedantic first-person narrator who nurtures a scary, subversive friendship with a younger woman. Whether or not Barbara is a repressed lesbian is totally beside the point. She becomes obsessed with her younger colleague, the alluring Bathsheba Hart, who joins the faculty at a small private English school as a pottery instructor.

With cool certainty, Barbara describes their inevitable friendship as "spiritual recognition," and she waits patiently for what she anticipates will be an "uncommon intimacy." She observes precise and intimate details of Sheba's body, mannerisms, and relationships; she becomes jealous when Sheba develops a close friendship with another woman.

Zoe Heller develops her protagonist with a subtlety that makes you know, without realizing why you know it, that Barbara is creepily malevolent to Shakespearean proportions. For example, Barbara describes Sheba's friend Sue Hodge as

the sort of woman who wears Lady-Lite panty liners every day of the month, as if there is nothing her body secretes that she doesn't think vile enough to be captured in cotton wool, wrapped in paper bags, and thrust far, far down at the bottom of the wastepaper bin. (I've been in the staff toilet after her and I know.)

Self-deception and self-righteousness cloud Barbara's narrative about her friend's illicit entanglement as she manipulates every fact and every rumor to strengthen the ties of her predatory friendship with Sheba. But Heller develops Barbara's character through her relationships with other characters as well, and through Barbara's own subtle self-revelations. "According to my notes," Barbara writes, "Sheba had no further contact with Connolly after the disastrous H.C. encounter until a couple of weeks into spring term."

According to her notes? Creepy!

Barbara never misses an opportunity for a caustic observation, and her sociopathology ultimately costs her any chance for true intimacy. Early in the book, in two abstruse and easily overlooked paragraphs, Barbara describes a close friendship that had ended abruptly and mysteriously. It's such a subtle hint at a history of social and personal dysfunction that every time the friend's name comes up later in Barbara's
Notes about her new friend's troubles, many readers won't connect the dots of pathology unless they re-read the forgotten episode on page 36.

This book is the fictional version of The Sociopath Next Door: it's both brilliant and disturbing. One review quoted on the back cover suggested that the perfection of Heller's voicing of Barbara's subtly malevolent sociopathology was literary ventriloquism. It makes me wonder how Heller acquired such penetrating insight into Machiavellian psychology. Hmmmmm?


Anna D. said...

I'm the opposite: seen the movie, but haven't read the book. And it seems the advertising really focused on the scandal part, but the film is much more focused on Sheba and Barbara's relationship, although it's told from Sheba's perspective. But Judi Dench is BRILLIANT. From your description, I'd say she plays the part well- subtle and so very creepy. Yet another book to add to my endless list- thanks a lot!

E. Peevie said...

I forgot to mention: the last line in the book is utterly chilling.

And if you go on LibraryThing (you are on LibraryThing, aren't you?) and read the reviews, it's hilarious how many people say things like, "I really related to the lonely, single teacher who befriends Sheba."