“And she, having forgotten, felt ashamed, for he was chivalry itself once she stopped behaving as if he was to be feared,” – Sarah Vaughan, Anatomy of a Scandal
With the advent of the #metoo campaign and the steady revelations surrounding the abuse of power in many of our global institutions, I decided to get my novel-on and explore the topic from a writer who nailed the insidious and ingrained nature of abuse in the first major psychological thriller of 2018.
Set in the heart of British Government, Vaughan tells the story of Kate, a lawyer who’s made her name prosecuting the very worst sexual abuse cases. As in many novels however, strong and career focused Kate is divorced and single, presented as ‘married to her job’ although not unhappily so. My quest for a happily married, career minded strong female protagonist therefore continues, it seems. In fact, the presentation of both the female protagonists in this novel made me twitch a bit, more on that later.
James Whitehouse is a charismatic, Cameron-esque politician who is accused of raping his junior colleague and casual sex partner in a lift in the house of commons. There are so many similarities between David Cameron and James Whitehouse in fact that I struggled to picture the character as anyone else. This may have been deliberate, or a damning symptom of how narrow our political talent pool has become. In either case, his toxic masculinity penetrates and infects the character and those around him, none more so than his wife, Sophie.
When news breaks of her husbands affair with his 28 year old aide (Olivia), the stay at home mother of 2 rallies and resolves to stand by her husband; then Olivia accuses him of rape and her whole world comes crashing around her ears. When news and James’ subsequent admittance of the affair is launched into Sophie’s field of vision, her instinct is to deflect and accept this as part and parcel of having a powerful husband…
2 things (and maybe my ranker is ill directed, granted). First off, the juxtaposition of these 2 women: Fairly powerless stay at home mum vs powerful, career driven lawyer. I need a cliche klaxon so very badly. My ranker is misdirected because it’s not the authors fault that her characters are pitched this way, she’s just reflecting the world she sees around her into her writing, she’s a novelist after all… but did Sophie really need an au pair? really? Come on now.
Secondly, I felt Sophie’s character conformed too closely to the politicians wife stereotype and this left her massively undeveloped as a character. She didn’t have a cat, a dog or a trumpet.
I should probably explain that.
There’s a principle in screen writing that if your character is a bit flat, you give them something they care about. For example, Will Smith’s Dog in I Am Legend.. or his cat in iRobot………. you get the idea.
Anyway, Sophie needed something to bring her to life. I needed to respect her as a human in order to care about her marriage and I just felt indifferent towards her. I understood her, her motivations and felt she was well explained, she just wasn’t fleshed out for me. A scene where she stopped of at Maccy D’s on the way home and ate it secretly in the car just to break her stereotype would have been delicious. Or her getting on the train, putting her feet up on the seats, kicking off her heels and eating a “fuck my life” banana. We’ve all been there and I needed her to join me there too.
The plot I don’t need to outline here, it was a story of a scandal, you know how that chestnut goes. I don’t like to brag, but I called the plot twist as soon as we were introduced to James. Still it was engaging for the most part although when the book ended, I felt a bit cheated. I felt like the book was being the grown up in our relationship and I was the petulant child wanting to continue the drama to a new crescendo. I’m like that when I’ve worked out the plot early on and then I’m proved right, I feel like I’ve cheated myself.
Anyway, it’s most definitely worth a read if you’re a fan of Scandal, House of Cards etc. It scratches the scandalous itch, but left me a bit bereft on the political intrigue if I’m honest.