Category Archives: Vaughan Sarah

Reputation: Sarah Vaughan

Sarah Vaughan’s Reputation takes a look at the life of British MP, Emma Webster, a divorced woman in her 40s who makes a number of bad decisions. When the book opens, we know that something very bad has taken place, and then Emma goes back through her recent past to the moment when things started to go wrong in her world. Emma pinpoints the first bad decision, the one “that started everything,” as the magazine photo shoot in which she is swayed by flattery and the presence of a male photographer to assume an aggressive, sexy posture.

Was I subliminally so desperate for male admiration? At forty-four, so conscious of becoming sexually invisible that, despite everything I stood for, I let myself be flattered by and play up to his uncompromisingly male gaze?

This scene sets the stage for all that is about to go wrong in Emma’s life, plus it reveals her Achilles’ heel. Politicians seem to fall on their own petards–most commonly a sex scandal petard. Politicians are not unique in their embroilment in sex scandals, but since there are journos watching, participants who may sell their stories, and enemies lurking in the shadows, there’s a good chance that the secrets of politicians will be exposed. Political sex scandals are highly leakable and who doesn’t like to read about a good, meaty sex scandal?

Since Emma’s divorce, the family home was sold and Emma now lives with two other female MPs. Emma shares custody of her daughter, Flora, with her ex. Meanwhile Emma’s ex, David, seems to be flourishing with his second wife Caroline, who was Flora’s piano teacher, no less.

Caroline, who had encouraged me to stand as a politician, then moved with alacrity to fill my space once I got into office.

A veritable viper in the bosom. David, with his new wife, has had a make-over, he’s fitter, lost weight, and sports a beard while Emma. … well she’s marching on and ploughing herself into her political work. The fact that David’s appearance has improved may partly explain why Emma is flattered into presenting the ‘sexy’ side of herself to the public through the magazine spread. Not, as it turns out, a good decision.

I liked the way we see Emma’s reaction to the new David–it must be a bit of a ego blow to see one’s former spouse dusted off, spruced up and flourishing in another relationship. Emma is not a particularly appealing character–this may possibly be because Emma really has no idea who she is, and while she is passionate about one political cause, Revenge Porn, she is a rather typical politician when it comes to issues that don’t fit her agenda (veteran’s mental health). Now there is no law against stupidity and Emma makes some really stupid decisions. Emma’s stupid decisions work plot-wise as the author laid the groundwork to make those decisions plausible, but still, I found it hard to care one way or another what happened to Emma–the loose cannon on the political payroll. The story unfolds through Emma’s eyes and is punctuated with vicious, reductive social media comments. How pathetic that worlds begin and end with the largely unaccountable actions of social media gladiators.

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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

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