This is one of those books which has been on my list to read for a while, but I only picked it up recently after a friend mentioned the film (which I also hadn’t seen at the time, but I managed to watch it shortly after finishing the book).
Notes on a Scandal is written from the perspective of Barbara, a longstanding teacher who lives a self-imposed solitary life. A new pottery teacher, Sheba, starts at the school and Barbara watches from afar as she nervously begins her first few days, becomes familiar with her colleagues and struggles to control classes of unruly teenagers. When Barbara helps Sheba after a fight breaks out in her classroom, the two women begin talking and a friendship develops. As it progresses, so another relationship moves forward: Sheba confesses that she is having an affair with one of her students. When the affair is discovered and a media frenzy begins, Barbara protects Sheba and, when they hide away from the prying eyes of cameras, Barbara begins writing a journal of the pair’s friendship and Sheba’s illicit affair.
Notes on a Scandal is very well written novel; Heller’s prose is insightful, perfectly depicting these two very different women. The lines and passages on loneliness are highlights for me. She depicts Barbara excellently, deftly describing loneliness in language which immediately captures what Barbara is feeling.
The novel reminds me of Nabokov’s Lolita in the way that it’s written on a topic that’s uncomfortable to read about. Yet my overwhelming feeling after finishing the book and reflecting on it now is that it’s less about the affair between Sheba and the student, and more about the relationship between Barbara and Sheba. Originally I wrote the word friendship here, but it’s difficult to describe it as such. There’s a strange dynamic between the two women – Barbara is overwhelmingly lonely and so clings to Sheba’s friendship and she grabs onto the smallest hope that Sheba feels the same as her. Sheba relies on Barbara, both at school and in keeping her secret about her affair, and Barbara uses this.
I really disliked both women in the book but, unexpectedly, perhaps I disliked Barbara the most. As the book is Barbara’s journal, we get her opinions on her colleagues and particularly Sheba. For a woman who desperately wants Sheba’s approval and friendship, she has quite cutting opinions of her. Sheba’s actions are wrong, but seen through the veil of Barbara, we almost start to feel sympathetic towards her in some ways.
Heller’s decision to write the novel from the perspective of Barbara is a clever one, and it raises interesting questions about which of the characters, if any, we should be siding with. Are we meant to feel sympathetic towards Sheba, as we see how Barbara uses her position as secret-keeper to her advantage? Should we feel sympathy for Barbara as we witness her crushing loneliness and her emotions when she feels needed and wanted by Sheba?
Notes on a Scandal is a well-written and thought-provoking novel that I’d highly recommend. The film, starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, is well worth a watch, too.
Have you read Notes on a Scandal? What did you think? Why do you think Heller chose to write the novel from Barbara’s perspective?