Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller
First published in 2003, Heller’s novel opens like this:
1st March 1998
The other night at dinner, Sheba talked about the first time that she and the Connolly boy kissed. I had heard most of it before, of course, there being few aspects of the Connolly business that Sheba has not described to me several times over. But this time round, something new came up. I happened to ask her if anything about the first embrace had surprised her. She laughed. Yes, the smell of the whole thing had been surprising, she said. She hadn’t anticipated his personal odour and if she had, she would probably have guessed at something teenagey: bubble gum, cola, feet.
When the moment arrived, what I actually inhaled was soap, tumble-dried laundry. He smelled of scrupulous self-maintenance. You know the washing machine fug that envelopes you sometimes, walking past the basement vents of mansion flats? Like that. So clean, Barbara. Never any of that cheese and onion breath that the other kids have.
Sheba, married and with children of her own, is obsessed with a young boy, one of her pupils. Barbara, a teacher at the same school, is single and lonely. Zoë Heller brings them together in this rather compelling novel of middle-class angst and personal insight. Two women who, each in her own way, are in deep denial and seem incapable of facing the truth of their lives.
As the novel progresses, the initial narrative of middle-aged femme fatale and grubby fifteen-year-old schoolboy is eclipsed by the realization that Barbara, our seemingly disinterested narrator, is in fact a predator herself, probably of a more dangerous hue than her colleague.
I enjoyed the novel and certainly found it compelling. But the writing is uneven, often transparent in quality, it occasionally disintegrates into a kind of self-conscious journalese. Nevertheless, the underlying power of the theme is maintained, and I find myself musing on these characters long after finishing the book.