This is a strange novel, because it isn't really about what it first appears to be about. The narrator, Barbara Covett, is a lonely history teacher who lives with her cat. She tells the story of a fellow teacher, the beautiful Sheba, who is attacked by the media after having an affair with one of her students, the 15-year-old Steven. But the book isn't really about Sheba's forbidden relationship with a boy; it's more about Barbara's strange relationship with Sheba.
Barbara tries to tell the story of Sheba's affair with Steven in a matter-of-fact way, constantly remembering to remind the reader of her own disapproval and amazement at the fact that someone like Sheba could fall for a teenage boy, but there is more to her narrative than meets the eye. Why is Barbara so fixated, so fascinated by Sheba (but cannot confess this to the reader)? Why does she feel the need to not only rescue Sheba, but also try to explain what Sheba has done?
This is one of those novels where there is almost more to read between the lines than in the lines themselves. Barbara is an unreliable narrator who tries to repress her own growing obsession for Sheba and her need to be Sheba's friend and confidant, even her only friend and confidant.
The last sentence of the novel (which I won't write here, because it could be considered a spoiler) is probably one of the most disturbing, sinister sentences that a novel has ever ended in...
The film with Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett is definitely worth watching too! For once I think the film is just as good as the book it was based on, or even better. :)
Zoë Heller: Notes on a Scandal. Viking. 2003. 244 pages.
The Guardian: "Queen of Sheba"
Wikipedia: Notes on a Scandal