Anatomy of a Scandal: Sarah Vaughan

There are some books that manage to hit the pulse of current societal issues, and by that measure, Sarah Vaughan’s Anatomy of a Scandal comes just at the right time.  With the recent Hollywood scandals, the subjects of consenting sex and acceptable sexual behaviour are in the headlines. I’m old enough to say that I had a employer who called women ‘broads,’ and I’ve lived long enough to see attitudes about rape shift. But in spite of attitude shifts, there’s always that underlying notion that saying ‘no’ can just be a coy way of playing hard-to-get.

So here we are in 2018 …

Anatomy of a Scandal is the story of a sex scandal–the type of sex scandal that makes headlines. Sophie is married to James, a junior Home Office minister in the government; they have two children and a beautiful home. James and Sophie met while attending university at Oxford and they dated for a while, broke up, and then reconnected years later in London. Sophie, who’d attended university primarily to snag a husband  (and not build a career) was ready to settle down, and she was sure that James’s wilder days were behind him.

We all mature, right?
Anatomy of a scandal

Sophie’s world comes crashing down when James comes home one night, sits her down  and explains that he’s accused of rape. The accuser is his parliamentary researcher, Olivia. Oh but wait… they had an affair, he broke off the relationship, but then they had one last hookup. And it’s this one last encounter that’s at issue: Olivia claims that she did NOT give consent and James says the incident was just the same as many others they had had before. …

The book follows the fallout from the accusation, and the story is told through 4 voices: Sophie, James, Kate (Olivia’s barrister, “an experienced specialist in prosecuting sexual crimes”) and Holly. Holly’s voice goes back to Sophie’s days at Oxford when Sophie was dating James. Part of the narrative is courtroom drama.

Anatomy of a Scandal is a page-turner. The author capture’s Sophie’s confusion as she is abruptly told about the affair by her husband. Then, with little time to absorb the information or assess her marriage, she’s groomed by the prime minster’s director of communications to stand-by-her-man. Sophie’s distress is shoved aside for political concerns, and there’s no room for any mourning, adjustment, or even time for the shock to be absorbed. At first Sophie cannot believe that the rape charge has any legitimacy, and her husband’s defense is that Olivia is a woman scorned. Of course, at the same time, she knows that he is a government minister and that he “dissembles,  yes. That’s part of his job–a willingness to be economical with the truth.” She also has an intimate view of James’s attitudes towards women and sexuality.

The courtroom scenes are marvelously done, so we see Kate eyeing the juror’s reactions as she walks Olivia through her testimony. The jury is composed of 7 women and 5 men:  “A jury that’s not ideal as women are more likely to acquit a personable man for rape.” James knows how to act the “penitent,” knows the pose to strike as a sensitive man who knows he shouldn’t have had an affair. James’s attractiveness pays off with even Kate’s friend admitting that he’s “the one Tory I wouldn’t kick out of bed.”

Wasn’t he having an affair with her, and didn’t she go to the papers when he called it off to be with his wife and kids? Doesn’t sound like she’s much of a victim to me. More of a woman getting her own back.

For this reader, by far the most interesting aspect of the book was the incident itself and whether or not rape had occurred. We slip into a grey area here as both sides are presented, and James is so smooth:

It pained him to say this, he said it more in sorrow than anger–he was now concerned for her mental health. It hadn’t been as robust as he’d assumed; a bout of anorexia in her teens; the rampant perfectionism that made her a superb researcher, but indicated a lack of balance; and now that her going to the paper hadn’t paid off–that he hadn’t left his wife as she’d wanted-this patent fantasy.

His blithe dismissals tumble from my mouth. Does he believe them? A politician who is so self-assured that his version of the truth is entirely subjective. His truth the one that he wants to believe? Or is this the smooth response of a liar who knows that he lies?

The book pivots on a central coincidence (which in all fairness, the author addresses), but for this reader, the coincidence distracted from the central moral questions of the case.

Anatomy of a Scandal is a great book club choice for not only does the plot center on the issue of rape and consent, but also there are underlying questions regarding male/female relationships. It would be interesting to sit in on post book club discussions. I could see readers coming to blows over this book.

To be fair, I sometimes wonder why so many of us women allow ourselves to wander so directly into the path of danger. Why return to a man who has made an unwanted advance or send a text with a kiss or a smiley face emoji? Why engage when it’s the last thing you feel?

review copy


Filed under Fiction, Vaughan Sarah

13 responses to “Anatomy of a Scandal: Sarah Vaughan

  1. Surely material for a film? In fact I think there has been one along these lines fairly recently.

  2. Annabel (gaskella)

    I enjoyed this one too. The coincidence/twist is distracting, but it was very well written, and so timely.

  3. Oh oh, Guy. I hate it when a book is called a “great book club book”. It makes me want to run a mile. It suggests book club books are those that deal with obvious issues that women (in particular, since women form most of the book clubs) want to talk about – like this, or surrogacy, or aging, etc. It’s rarely applied to books that are challenging to read because of their style, their structure, their language, or how the ideas are explored. Sorry for the rant – most people would probably not feel the way I do about this!!

    • No I understand. I hesitate before saying that about a book as I wonder if I’m being insulting. BUT that said, this is so topical, I think it could get a group (and a mix of male and female would be great) stirred up.
      I have my own feeling about the case’s merit: notice I did not say the victim’s claim. It’s very debatable.

      • Thank s Guy. I just needed to say that. I think I’d prefer it if people just said, “this would be a great book for discussion”

        And I agree it’s very debatable and that there must be so many grey situations. I hate the idea that women might abuse the rights we now have – though I’m sure it happens. In my head, I think ”Oh well, women have had the wrong end of the stick for so long, it can’t be helped if the odd man gets hurt in righting the balance, but in my heart I feel badly about any injustice that occurs and about people who take advantage of the situation.

        • I’ve been reading the Helen Garner non fiction book and now I”m interested to read The First Stone which I wasn’t that interested in reading before. Have you read it?

          • I sure have, Guy. It made me mad, but I loved it too. It’s also a great book for discussion! I’ve not reviewed it as I read it when it came out, but I’ve discussed it in my review of Brennan’s book on Garner.

  4. Sounds very interesting. Definitely something I’d like.
    I must say that I find the discussions that have been going on are getting wilder and wilder. Not sure if you’ve heard about the Aziz Ansari case and the testimony of his alleged victim . . . I’m not going into this here but things seem to get out of hand.

  5. This one sure deals with a hot topic.

    When it’s been established once for all that saying no is not playing hard to get, the world will be better for women. It’s going to take a lot of time.

    PS: From what I see of teenage boys around me, they are more respectful of girls than boys were in my teenage years. There’s hope.

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