Selena's Reviews > Notes on a Scandal

Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller
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Mar 18, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: 2010, literary-fiction
Recommended to Selena by: Frances Evangelista
Read from March 11 to 16, 2010 — I own a copy

The notes I’ve written while reading this book are extensive. I’ve got pages and pages of musings about the narrator, Barbara, and the affair that occurred between teacher and student (Sheba and Steven, respectively). For the first time in a long time, I had to refer to my copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and double-check to see if a character fit the description and criteria listed for a disorder.


Beginning the novel, I fell in love with Heller’s descriptive writing. The heated scenes between teacher and student made me worried about the further content of the book but very quickly the tone changed, developing into something much more sophisticated.

We see the novel narrated through the eyes of Barbara. At first, I imagined this would provide insight into what it is like to be deep friends with someone wrapped up in such a scandal. Instead, it provided great insight into what it is like to be an object of obsession (almost a sexual obsession) for a friend while also being wrapped up in a scandal.

I wasn’t sure how much of the story I believed, it being told from Barbara’s perspective. Did she lie about things that she didn’t put to the page? Did she over-exaggerate Sheba’s involvement with her student, Steven? Did she over-exaggerate her objections to it? Were here reasons for writing the notes at all truthful?

Part-way through the novel, when Barbara recounts the beginnings of her friendship with Sheba, she talks about a friend of hers, Jennifer, who told her one day she no longer wanted anything to do with her. A while later, she runs into Jennifer and her new boyfriend, who makes rather mean faces at Barbara and kisses Jennifer passionately in front of her, smiling smugly after. What did Barbara do that Jennifer felt she needed her boyfriend to protect her in such a way? It seemed to me that she did more than just obsess over Jennifer – perhaps she did the same thing to Sheba, but didn’t talk about it in her “extensive notes.”

Logically, I know that what Barbara is doing to Sheba (and did to Jennifer) is not in any way illegal but somehow, it feels like it should be. I know that Sheba had sex with a minor and that an age difference like that matters but Heller makes us question what is more wrong. Sheba violated a minor, a terrible offense. But she is being torn apart emotionally and controlled by someone who is supposed to be her friend. And her husband is now dating a woman who is nearly as young as Steven, just old enough to be legal, and also a student of his. Each situation is wrong in its own ways and as a reader, it isn’t ever clear which one should be of the most offense to you.

Heller’s writing was truly startling. Throughout the novel we see such accounts of loneliness and obsession, captured so perfectly. Being an emotional reader, a sponge of sorts, I had to really work to keep my own feelings from mingling with that of the characters. That said, the ending left my scared for Sheba.

In the end, Barbara gets rid of any evidence of Sheba’s affair with Steven; the first evidence being photographs of them in rather compromising positions and the second being a large sculpture of Sheba holding Steven like a mother would a dear child. With hammer in hand, Barbara smashes it to pieces, commenting on the frailty of the clay and her surprise at her own strength. Notes on a Scandal ends with Barbara holding a frightened, vulnerable and helpless Sheba in the exact same manner that Sheba held Steven in the sculpture.

I left the book feeling haunted – the reader left Sheba behind in a rather unpleasant situation with a possessive mother-figure who doesn’t seem to have Sheba’s well-being in mind. Everything lays shattered in pieces.
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03/15/2010 page 116
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