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Anatomy of a Scandal: the Book Behind the Series

When I saw Anatomy of a Scandal was going to be made into a show on Netflix, I was curious about the novel it would be based on.

Seeing the talented cast that would be bringing this psychological thriller to life, I knew it was time to read the book before my mental images were set forever.

Feature photo for Anatomy of a Scandal

Whether you choose to read the book before the show comes out in April 2022, or you are seeking the book now because you loved the show, reading the psychological thriller that is Anatomy of a Scandal is well worth your time.

An Impressive Debut Novel by Sarah Vaughan

Anatomy of a scandal book cover

Anatomy of a Scandal

Published during the height of the #MeToo movement, Anatomy of a Scandal feels like it could easily have been ripped from the headlines where a rising politician is suddenly on trial for assault of an employee.

The book follows his wife, Sophie Whitehouse, and the lawyer prosecuting him, barrister Kate Woodcroft. Their conflicting ideas about who this man really is and what he did forms the basis of this courtroom drama.

It has a nuanced storyline about the boundaries of consent that feels authentic if a little sensationalized to depict a scandalous secret.

Girl with a secret
Source: Unsplash

That’s all I’m going to give away here without ruining the book, but you can read all the Anatomy of a Scandal spoilers below.

Where the novel shines is in its realistic depictions of the female characters. You understand and empathize with how difficult it is for Kate to confront her past, or for Sophie to admit her husband is not the man she thought he was. Her loss of herself after years of marriage is and how that affects her really rings true in this case.

As a former political correspondent, author Sarah Vaughan has an insider’s knowledge of this world that really shows.

Loving father and Sophie’s husband, James, is also believable in his narcissism. His belief that ordinary rules don’t apply to him and that he knows better than others is sadly, also commonplace (especially in politics).

Scales of justice
Source: Unsplash

The story of the unfolding scandal he causes is gripping enough you want to keep reading, but slow enough you do start to wish you could skip ahead. Overall it has decent pacing, but it might have benefitted from a little more editing just to make it feel as quick as you expect this kind of propulsive courtroom drama to be.

This is not a perfect novel. There are some character holes and plot points that seem less than believable, especially around James.

But the fact is, whatever its limitations, I couldn’t put the book down.

Sarah Vaughan pulls you through to the end by the promise some big secret is waiting for you. And you NEED to know what it is. The payoff is maybe not as climatic as you might hope, but it’s still very satisfying. 

While in my opinion, it’s not five stars, it IS a solid four. It’s is an impressive debut novel by its author,and in all, I would call myself a huge fan of the book! If you are into courtroom drama, tales of revenge and justice, and complex female characters, this is a fantastic book for you. I’ll definitely be picking up a copy of Reputation, Sarah Vaughan’s newest novel, next.

Book Club Questions

This book has been making the rounds in book clubs, and it’s easy to see why! There is a lot to unpack and discuss in this suspenseful novel.

If you are looking to suggest it for your own reading group, here is a list of Anatomy of a Scandal book club questions to get you started.

The Netflix Series Cast

After reading the book, I am incredibly excited to see what Netflix does with the show. Just based on the strength of the cast alone, it promises to be an excellent adaptation.

Source: Netflix

The show stars Sienna Miller as Sophie and Michelle Dockery (who played Lady Mary Crawley on Downton Abbey) as Kate.

Michelle Dockery as Kate Woodcroft is an especially strong choice for casting, and I’m genuinely excited to see her take on a role like this!

Rupert Friend and Naomi Scott round out the main characters as James Whitehouse and Olivia Lytton. If they have anything like the chemistry the still of the series show, it’s going to be an impressive drama.

Other supporting roles include Josette Simon as the barrister defending James when he is on trial.

The six-part series is under the care of executive producers David E. Kelley and Melissa James Gibson, who also co-created and wrote the show. Gibson is also the one behind hits like House of Cards and Big Little Lies, two other favorite shows of mine.

The show aired on Netflix April 15, 2022.

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Anatomy of a Scandal Synopsis (Spoilers)

It’s 2016 and Kate Woodcroft is an English Barrister who has just lost a case when her clerk brings her one sure to make her career. She is a woman’s rights advocate committed to making sure abused women get their day in court.

The defendant, in this case, is Jame White, a very handsome man and government minister who has lived a life of privilege.

He is also the Prime Minister’s best friend, and he’s accused of forcing himself on an employee. James has admitted he had an affair with this employee to his wife Sophie, but this new accusation leaves her shocked. Her ordered world is turned upside down.

We flashback to Oxford University where a girl named Holly is just starting at her dream school in 1992.

Holly makes a few friends, the main ones being Sophie, her tutorial partner with a privileged upbringing, and Alison, a girl from the North of England like her.

They bond over how much they don’t fit the typical Oxford type and become fast friends.

Oxford University library
Source: Unsplash

Holly starts to slowly blossom in the academic surrounding and is gaining confidence when she meets Sophie’s new boyfriend, James Whitehouse.

She is instantly crushing on him, and tries to run into him as often as she can casually pretend is an accident.

Holly has just come from a party and is walking home tipsy when she runs into James. After flirting, he starts kissing her. She is thrilled, and though she feels guilty about Sophie, it’s a dream come true.

Things take a dark turn when James refuses to slow down and instead forces himself on Holly.

Holly is left reeling after the incident and becomes immediately withdrawn and depressed. The only person she tells what has happened to is Alison.

She leaves school at the end of the semester and doesn’t come back. Sophie never knew what happened to her study partner and friend. 

Kate defends the employee who is accusing James, Olivia Lytton, and is merciless in her examination of him. Olivia claims she said no before he forced himself on her in an elevator at the Parliamentary House.

He says he never heard her say that.

Kate knows he is lying because the phrase Olivia is claiming he said is the same one he whispered to her as Holly so many years ago.

Court room seats
Source: Unsplash

With a new name and a completely new (and severe) look, neither James nor Sophie recognize Kate as Holly.

James, being a very practiced liar, is able to convince the jury that Olivia was just sad. He had broken up with her, and now she is making up stories to get back at him.

He is ultimately found “not guilty”, but Sophie now has doubts about him. These doubts are confirmed when he admits to her privately that yes he heard Olivia say no. He says he knew better that she really wanted him. 

She wants to leave him, but keeps coming back to him being around for the children is what’s really important. Kate is devastated she wasn’t able to get justice for Olivia or the innocent, trusting girl she used to be.

James is welcomed back into the political fold after a respectable amount of time. His star is soon shining again.

Sophie ultimately becomes more and more disgusted that James is getting away with yet another crime. She points someone to look closer into the happenings of the Libertines, an Oxford dining group the Prime Minister and James were both a part of at school.

We flashback to the night Kate was attacked. Earlier in the night, the Prime Minister had shared smack with a friend, Alec.

This got Alec so confused he ended up jumping out a window. James and the PM saw him fall. Instead of calling for help they run away and pretend they were never there. 

This terrible crime and the consequences of the decisions they made never came to light.

Student on a balcony
Source: Unsplash

The book ends a year in the future with Kate ruminating on the end of the Whitehouse marriage with Sophie’s quick divorce from James.

Her clerk brings her the paper and she reads the headlines. The Prime Minister is now embroiled in an old scandal where he may have caused the death of another student. James is also going to be questioned.

Justice it seems, will be done after all. As Kate’s clerk assures her on the final page, “He’s not going to get away with it this time.”

Looking to make reading a more regular thing? Why not start a book club! Check out my article on How to Form a Book Club for tips on creating the ideal club for your lifestyle.

Did you read Anatomy of a Scandal? What did you think? Leave me a comment below and let me know!