Book No 10 (2021) : Anatomy of a Scandal

Sarah Vaughan’s novel has been hugely successful. As well as having been selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club in 2018, it has recently been added to that Club’s list of their favourite, stand-out titles from the past decade. Which all makes me think that anything I might have to say will be largely irrelevant, as the reading jury has already delivered its positive verdict on this one! Nevertheless, I’ll give you my twopenn’orth.

The plot of the novel (classed by Richard & Judy as ‘literary fiction‘ #debatable) centres upon a prosecution for rape brought against a politician (James Whithouse) by an aide with whom he was having an affair. The case is prosecuted by a female barrister, Kate; it transpires that she has a particular reason for wanting to see this perpetrator brought to justice.

Switching between the viewpoints of Kate, James and his wife (Sophie), and a University contemporary of the couple (Holly), the story is set between the University of Oxford in the early 1990s and the London setting of Westminster and the courts in 2017. Although this may sound complex, it works reasonably well as a literary device and the plot is easy to follow. I managed to read the book in a day.

For most of the day that I spent reading though, I wanted to fling the ‘Sunday Times‘ best-selling, 4-pages of plaudits, Simon & Schuster novel at the wall. If it hadn’t have been the monthly choice for our own village book group, I would have given up.

Firstly, the plot is paper-thin. If it was a hotel wall, you’d be able to hear your neighbour clipping their toenails. It is also predictable, and not in a dramatically ironic way, more in a ‘I saw that coming a mile off” way. Kate has a back-story which is barely disguised and the reveal is under-whelming.

Even more frustrating though, were the clumsy stereo-types, especially of Oxford students: the provincial, dull, hard-working state school pupil who is over-awed by the public-school types. Contrast her with the posh bird – beautiful, sporty, wealthy and only at Oxford to find a husband. The male counterparts are the posh boys – floppy haired members of exclusive drinking clubs, drug-taking champagne quaffers who are dismissive of their sexual flings with women. This may have been the Oxford of Sarah Vaughan’s youth, but I felt she does the University a huge disservice. Oxford today works hard to dispel these out-dated stereotypes, which threaten to make an Oxbridge place feel unattainable for less privileged and state school pupils. Interestingly, most of us in the book group discussion had come to the same conclusion – many of us have first-hand experience of the modern University of Oxford and were disappointed by the cliches.

The number of rape convictions in England and Wales has fallen to a record low but sadly the treatment of the issue in this novel was disappointing, with the prosecuting lawyer driven by a personal vendetta, rather than striving for a conviction to deliver justice for the victim.

I realise that my last few reviews I’ve been a bit Marmite about books – I other seem to love ’em or hate ’em. But this one is definitely toast!

Book No 27 (2014) : After I Left You

after i left youThrough hanging around on the Internet, I discovered ‘NetGalley’. It’s a site which allows reviewers to request complimentary copies of books, on the understanding that in return for the free copy, they
review the work and give feedback to the publisher. ‘After I Left You’ was the first of my requests to be accepted, so I was excited!

‘After I Left You’ is the story of Anna Jones, an Oxford graduate. Having moved on in life after University, an unexpected encounter with a former lover causes her to confront the traumatic events which over-shadowed her final days at St Bartholomew’s College. After so many years, can she gain some closure?

The book is written in the first person, switching between Anna’s current and former lives as she is drawn to reminisce about her student days spent in the company of a close circle of friends – Clarissa, Meg, Victor, Barnaby and Keith. As well as flashback, it uses several plot devices to progress the story, and also has some literary references. There are twists and turns, leading to the revelations of what happened to Anna at the Summer Ball.

I found this novel frustrating. I am extremely familiar with Oxford and felt that Ms Mercer failed to capture the magic of the city or the complexity of student life. Her characters felt flat, one-dimensional. Although the plot draws events to a conclusion, the whole book left me feeling dissatisfied. Sorry, but not a book I feel able to recommend.