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Once Upon A Bookshelf

Where Fiction and Reality Meet

Notes on a Scandal

Author: Zoë Heller
Originally Published: 2003
Reissued Edition: 2009
Publisher: Penguin Books
Source: Borrowed from Shannon

The Story

Told from the perspective of an extremely manipulative friend, Notes on a Scandal tells us about Sheba, a teacher in her 40’s, who has an affair with one of her under-age pupils. This is both the story of Sheba’s affair with her student, and the story of Barbara’s (the narrator) obsession with Sheba.

Starting when Sheba starts teaching pottery at the school, we soon see Barbara’s obsession with Sheba grow, until well after Sheba’s affair is discovered. Barbara’s discovery of Sheba’s affair provides Barbara with the perfect opportunity to manipulate Sheba into a “friendship” where Sheba is completely dependent on Barbara.

The Response

Okay, I didn’t expect this book to be as hard to put down as it was.

The first thing I want to mention is how very extremely easy to read and how quickly it was to get into the story. Even though I had heard good things about this book, I went into it half expecting it to be a little bit dry. The subject matter made it sound like it was going to be a heavy book. Thankfully, it really wasn’t on both accounts.

The narrator, Barbara, made the story interesting, that’s for sure. She was completely unreliable. You don’t know how much she was saying was the truth, and how much she was embellishing to (a) make herself look better and (b) make Sheba more dependent on her. While she told you what Sheba said happened, and what Sheba had said she was thinking through the events, we don’t know how much of it actually happened like that. (And in fact, I’m wondering if perhaps she wanted Sheba to find the manuscript she was writing about Sheba’s events to blackmail Sheba into depending fully on her.)

So spending the time in this book and looking deeper into what was here in order to really get to the truth was certainly an interesting journey – and even after finishing it, I’m still not sure what was the truth, only that the story was rather disturbing, the lengths people will go to for their own means. And even more disturbing to consider whether Barbara knew what she was doing, or whether it was all subconscious.

The side-story itself of Sheba’s affair with the young boy was a little ick-inducing. I mean, what 40 year old woman would consider it okay to get romantic with a young student? Especially since she has a husband and two kids of her own… it just boggles my mind to think about it, and I find that I can’t really put myself into her shoes at all. It’s just… ick.

I had wanted to see the movie when it came out, and am now even more curious about it. (Though have no doubt I will end up angry that the movie doesn’t stick perfectly to the book.) Will need to check it out at some point soon.

The Bottom Line

Overall, a thoroughly engaging book, especially seeing as the narrator was so unreliable. Would be willing to read any of Heller’s other books now.

Other Reviews

Mostly Harmless, A Work in Progress, The Infinite Shelf, The Zen Leaf, Reading Matters, Another Cookie Crumbles. Have you reviewed this book on your blog? Let me know and I’ll add your link.

Posted by Courtney Wilson @ 5:13 pm May 4, 2011.
Category: Fiction and Literature
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  • http://www.beauscibooks.blogspot.com Books and the Scientist

    I’ve never read the novel but had watched the movie which was really good. This maybe one of those times I’ll have to go back to the book for more enjoyment. Great review

  • http://www.anothercookiecrumbles.co.uk anothercookiecrumbles

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and couldn’t put it down either. My review is here.

    I agree with the whole ick-factor – I mean, seriously!! However, what I do find interesting is, it would be a lot more icky (and controversial) if the teacher was male and the student female. Do we really live in such a sexist world?