Friday, July 8, 2022

Book Review: Reputation

By Jami Denison

The personal is political. The discourse around politics is so divisive, especially on social media, that it’s easy to forget that it’s not just an American problem. Doxxing, bot campaigns, and misogyny are issues all around the world. And it’s the center of British author Sarah Vaughan’s latest novel, Reputation.  Her 2018 release, Anatomy of a Scandal, is now a top series on Netflix. Reputation may earn the same accolade. While her stories take place in England, the plots could easily take place in the United States. If you’re a woman who follows politics and spends time on social media, Reputation will quickly pull you in.

Reputation’s protagonist is Emma Watson, a member of Parliament from the Labour Party who champions women’s rights. A complicated back story – her husband left her for their daughter’s piano teacher, who was a work colleague of Emma’s before she was elected – has Emma more vulnerable than most. And her work on a bill that would strengthen penalties against revenge porn has brought out the trolls in droves—she’s had stalkers, letters threatening to throw acid in her face, and tweeters casually talking about raping her. It’s harrowing. The press won’t leave her alone, either—there’s one particularly snarky right-wing columnist who loves making fun of her, a man who actually taught her in college. 

Worst of all, Emma’s schedule leaves her little time for her fourteen year-old daughter Flora, who now lives with Emma’s ex-husband and the woman who supplanted Emma in her own home. When Flora responds to bullying by committing her own act of revenge porn, Emma is eager to shield her daughter from the consequences of her actions and keep her name out of the press. Then the unthinkable happens: A man dies at Emma’s home. And no one’s reputation can survive.

This synopsis adheres pretty closely to what the publisher has put out, so I’m keeping quiet on a few details that occur early in the book that the publisher might consider spoilers. The structure itself is nonlinear, with the story starting with Emma’s work on the revenge porn bill and Flora’s bullying (they are both point-of-view characters), jumping forward to after the death, and going back and forth a little between those time periods. The death itself isn’t shown till the end, leaving the reader ample time to speculate about what really happened and how it might differ from the story other characters told. 

I found the first half of the book to be “unputdownable.” Emma, as written in first person, is an amazing character. She’s a fearless advocate for women, even while she’s subjected to incredible harassment. She’s beautiful—a magazine cover story leads some in the press to joke that she’s a “MPILF.” But her husband left her for another woman; she’s living with roommates at this stage in her life, and she’s lonely. When she allows herself to be vulnerable and makes a huge mistake, it’s completely understandable.

Flora, too, is being bullied horribly by her former best friend. (Flora’s sections are written in close third-person.) Her mother’s too busy to confide in; her stepmother isn’t close enough. So when Flora takes revenge in a thoughtless but explicable manner, the reader can’t help but root for her, even though the ramifications for her actions are both serious and appropriate. 

For most of the book, I was turning the pages as fast as my Kindle would let me. The action was fast-paced, the characters compelling (even Caroline, the stepmother, gets a few point-of-view chapters that show her as sympathetic), the twists both foreshadowed and surprising.

Then, for me, it all pretty much came to a halt. The second half of the book is dominated by a trial. This may be just my personal preference—I haven’t enjoyed a trial since Karen Wolek on One Life to Live told all of Llanview that she was a common hooker back in 1979—but reading about testimony and lawyers' questions and jurors’ faces was just too slow for me. I skimmed those pages, wondering if a certain bit of intriguing subplot was ever going to come out.

And, similarly, the ending was more of a whimper than a bang, with the aforementioned subplot given a shrug rather than the explosion I’d anticipated. 

As a writer myself, I read the second half of the book thinking about choices I would have made for these characters and this plot rather than how Vaughan told the story. With the emphasis on the trial, I felt she lost opportunities to build on the setups she’d established in the beginning of the book. The irony of her own daughter engaging in revenge porn just after Emma sponsored a bill on the tactic was a genius twist, and it became a detail buried by the courtroom drama. I was just as drawn into Flora’s story as I was Emma’s, and the girl is almost completely missing in the second half of the book.

I am sure there are many other readers who enjoy trials, and they will absolutely love this book. For the rest of us, the book’s first half is strong enough that Reputation is still a good read. And it’s timely: As I write this, Elon Musk has just obtained financing to buy Twitter, with the goal of ending Twitter’s already flimsy protections against hate speech and cyberstalking. If he’s successful, the result will be more hateful discourse and fewer women willing to take the risk to go into politics. Which, of course, has been the goal all along. 

Thanks to Atria for the book in exchange for an honest review.

Also by Sarah Vaughan:

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