Simon & Schuster | 2018 (11 January) | c.400p | Review copy | Buy the book
Kate is a successful barrister, a QC who prosecutes those who need to be locked away. But she’s just lost a case and it’s hit her hard. But as she sits at her desk in the Inns of Court, London, her clerk brings her the file for a new case and it immediately catches Kate’s interest. It concerns James Whitehouse, a junior Home Office Minister and confidant of the Prime Minister, a friend of his from his Eton and Oxford University days. Whitehouse has been accused of the rape of Olivia Lytton, one of his researchers, with whom Whitehouse had had an affair. It’s hard to imagine a more high profile case. It could give Kate’s career the push it deserves.
Sophie is a woman whose life has been turned upside down. She is married to James Whitehouse, the doting father of their children, whose political career is on the up, and they live in a beautiful house, enjoying such a wonderful lifestyle. Learning that James has had an affair with researcher Olivia Lytton is appalling for Sophie but she knows that she will stand by him. But then, as the reporters camp outside her door, it all gets much, much worse. Sophie loves her husband, he must be innocent. She must hold her family together.
Anatomy of a Scandal is a timely and tense psychological thriller. It presents men of privilege, men who believe that they’re above the law and may have evaded it for decades, but those days are changing. It all sounds very familiar, especially when you throw in Eton schooldays and a decadent and exclusive dining club at Oxford University. Kate and Sophie approach this story from different angles – one is actively trying to challenge the status quo while the other wishes things stayed as they were. It’s hard not to sympathise with both positions. Sophie is part of the establishment, it’s understandable that she wants to keep her perfect life as it was, but this is the type of crime that, if proven, could collapse the world around her.
The novel is presented from several perspectives but mostly from the point of view of Kate and Sophie and also in the present tense. This raises the tension, the clash in perspectives, and also contrasts the legal and personal elements of the story and case. James Whitehouse is a different man to different people and so we’re left to make up our own opinions. This is especially true during the court scenes and the extended inquisition of Olivia in the witness box. So we have the perspective of a third woman and these scenes are perhaps the most powerful of all.
With no doubt at all, Anatomy of a Scandal is a fast and compelling read. Its structure, moving between the main characters and also between the past and present, contributes to the pace. It is also very well-written with fascinating insight into the legal process and also into the psychological state of the novel’s characters. But I did have some issues with it, mostly due to its big twist which I did not care for at all and hoped wasn’t coming. I know psychological thrillers are expected to have these twists but these days it rather puts me off. I’d rather have a story that stays true to its characters and doesn’t bend them to fit the twist. My other main issue was with its similarity to the reported student days of Cameron and Johnson etc in Oxford. It’s all so odious it automatically puts me off every character concerned. As a result, there were a fair few characters here I had no time for and unfortunately that also included Sophie.
Nevertheless, although I had a bit of trouble with some of the plot devices, Anatomy of a Scandal was a book I’d been looking forward to reading and it certainly did keep my attention. Sarah Vaughan writes very well and I’m very interested to see what she does next while hoping that the skill of her writing is allowed to triumph over the ubiquitous twist.