Top critical review
36 people found this helpful
Shades of Ripley -- and more
on 2 March 2004
"Notes on a Scandal" kept me engrossed during the two days it took me to finish it, but it didn't do much more for me than that. Both the Booker nomination and the all-round glowing reviews have therefore surprised me a little. In part, the book reminded me of "The Collector" by John Fowles, in which a mousy, isolated civil servant kidnaps a glamorous art student, or of (as noted on the cover) Patricia Highsmith's "Ripley" books. There are also similarities with numerous films (and the novel is indeed quite "cinematic"), in which sinister-protective friends with obsessive streaks would offer up all for the object of their devotion, more often than not with a class difference at its base. I suppose I've just read and seen too many (admittedly trashier) books and movies with a similar theme to really be suprised or captivated by "Notes..."
Things I did like about the book: the comic notes (like Sheba's laughably romanticised, soap-opera ideas about the classes below her); and Barbara Covett's rarely predictable persona: at various times in the novel, she proves herself to have a scathing sense of humour, and together with her sharp observations of her fellow staff members, this at least lends some complexity to the merely pathetic character she could have turned out to be. I also applauded her (or the author's) views on the (media) hypocrisy surrounding intergenerational sex. For a supposedly embittered spinster, she has some honestly expressed, progressive ideas on the self-evidence of teaching staff's sometimes physical attraction for their pupils.
(I do somehow get the impression, however, that we're reading Zoë Heller's views there rather than Barbara Covett's.)
Perhaps I'm failing to see subtleties about the characterizations in the book (I might lack the refinement to appreciate them), but for me (at the risk of sounding very pedantic), this was never a "literary" reading experience, just a distracting read, though one with too many echoes of other stories.