What is this about?: Kate and Sophie, two very different women who are involved in the rape trial of James, Sophie’s husband. Kate is the woman prosecuting him for it.
What else is this about?: Two women navigating the toxic masculinity James represents in their own ways. It’s about what they have to do to survive.
Sophie’s husband James is a loving father, a handsome man, a charismatic and successful public figure. And yet he stands accused of a terrible crime. Sophie is convinced he is innocent and desperate to protect her precious family from the lies that threaten to rip them apart.
Kate is the lawyer hired to prosecute the case: an experienced professional who knows that the law is all about winning the argument. And yet Kate seeks the truth at all times. She is certain James is guilty and is determined he will pay for his crimes.
Who is right about James? Sophie or Kate? And is either of them informed by anything more than instinct and personal experience? Despite her privileged upbringing, Sophie is well aware that her beautiful life is not inviolable. She has known it since she and James were first lovers, at Oxford, and she witnessed how easily pleasure could tip into tragedy.
Most people would prefer not to try to understand what passes between a man and a woman when they are alone: alone in bed, alone in an embrace, alone in an elevator… Or alone in the moonlit courtyard of an Oxford college, where a girl once stood before a boy, heart pounding with excitement, then fear. Sophie never understood why her tutorial partner Holly left Oxford so abruptly. What would she think, if she knew the truth?
Right now, #MeToo is on everyone’s social feeds and newspapers, along with stories of abuse, harassment and pay discrepancies that show the wide chasms in how women and men are treated. But as I understand it, this book came into being as a result of Sarah Vaughan’s own experiences as a political journalist and former student at Oxford, where some of this takes place, and its release is a result of some excellent timing.
James is charming, handsome and the kind of man who plays well in the media. He’s a confidant of the British PM and when the scandal of his affair with Olivia breaks, that relationship stands him in good stead as he weathers the publicity storm.
Then Olivia, his ex-lover, accuses him of rape.
What is this about?
Anatomy of a Scandal begins fairly conventionally, and slowly, before Vaughan begins to split the narrative between the past and present. We see Holly, Sophie and James in Oxford, and learn about the heady days of freedom it represented for Holly in particular. Her background is a poor one, not like Sophie, who is her tutorial partner at the time. Sophie is focused on other things besides college, and Holly doesn’t mind when she ends up doing more work than she should while Sophie hangs out with her boyfriend, James, instead. Holly sees her future stretch before and she’s ready to embrace it.
I think you can well imagine why that future is derailed.
It’s important for readers to understand Holly, the fear and anger that came with her rape. To see the havoc James left in his wake at that time, and the havoc he causes in the present, and he simply does not care he raped someone. Olivia loved James, and James loved sex. That’s it.
Vaughan draws a picture of man who is chronically unfaithful and thinks only of his own his desires – his family and Sophie are nowhere near the top of his list.
And yet, he presents a charming, reasonable persona on the stand, where you would understand why people believe men like him and his story.
You know this man.
You’ve seen it in cases of women and the men they know, are dating or are married to, and who rape them, or abuse them. This is the man Sophie wants to believe in and the façade Kate wants to break through.
Sophie and Kate
Sophie loves James, she has since they met. She wanted marriage, kids and everything that came with being his wife, but when the story breaks she is humiliated and angry. She knows she will stand by him, even if she says she won’t come to court. She says her focus is her kids, but there’s a little bit of something in her that takes her to court on one horrifying day, in disguise — to hear about her husband’s affair with Olivia, to hear him admit his feelings about his affair. Add in the stress of the publicity that comes with being him being a minister and his wife, and it’s no wonder Sophie never goes back.
Everyone asks the question in situations like this: what did the significant other of the suspect know? Surely, they must have known something, right? Vaughan takes her time with this part of the book, showing readers a woman they’ll understand in her desire to protect her kids, and her family and who might not know who she is outside of being a mother.
But, she comes to realise that’s just one part of her – there’s another part who is a woman who knows her husband far better than he ever gave her credit for, because he just doesn’t think that much of her.
Kate is the antithesis of Sophie – no kids, divorced and focused on her work as a prosecutor. She believes in Olivia, and knows it’s going to be an uphill battle getting the jury to believe her. As Vaughan explores Kate, she looms large in the story as the trial progresses, and readers get to explore her feelings towards James and Olivia, and understand her better through her friendship with her best friend, Ali. Kate knows who she is, and she knows the reality of her job and her prosecution of James and she does nothing less than her best to put him behind bars.
Was it ever going to be enough? Vaughan answers that question, but it’s really not the most important part of the story — neither is the twist in the tale.
The most important part of the story is how the women in it take back control from James, and this narrative he’s forced them into by his actions. Men like James never see the strength in the women around him, not until it’s too late for them.
Vaughan’s writing is stark sometimes, laying bare the truth of how men like James think of women. I was exhausted when I finished, my mind working to take in everything she’s written — and I love it when books make me feel, and think and turn me upside down like this.
It’s glorious. It’s timely. Read it.
And also read my interview with her tomorrow.