A Review of Sarah Vaughan’s “Reputation”
Pitch Black as Night
Hey, everyone! Do you want to read a light-hearted book that will leave you satisfied with the way women are treated in society? Are you in the mood for something that is all rainbows, unicorns, and pixie dust? Do you want to read a novel that will leave you feeling as though life is perfect? Are you in the mood for something utterly life-affirming? Well, then. I have to say that Sarah Vaughan’s Reputation is NOT the book for you! This novel must be one of the most depressing, pitch-black books I’ve ever read (and that’s saying a lot because, you know, I do read my Stephen King). The main characters are likable but keep having bad things happen to them repeatedly to the point where it’s relentless. You may want to put this book down after reading a third of it and not want to ever pick it up again — it’s that bleak. It’s the kind of novel that makes Schindler’s List seem upbeat in comparison. Thus, your mileage may vary here: reading Reputation boils down to how much sorrow and pain you wish to expose yourself to.
Having said all of that, that’s not to say that Reputation is a terrible book. It is, in fact, an exceedingly well-written novel and an effective thriller at that. Good thrillers make you feel unsettled, so on that point, Reputation succeeds. It’s also a book that has extremely important things to say about violence against women and how social media has intensified public hate against women who are public figures. Thus, I’m a bit sheepish in suggesting that this is something you shouldn’t read. However, it is dark. It is black. If you’re looking for a book as escapism, this one shouldn’t be the one you turn to. The issue is that it has characters you want to see succeed, only you get to see them get pummelled and punished over and over again. After a while, this begins to have an impact on the reader. Nothing good seems to happen to these people, and so the reader stands on the sidelines and is forced to watch a flaming car wreck that cannot be extinguished. Thus, the only recourse you might have as a reader is to quit reading — which is something I cannot do as a reviewer as I feel that that’s intellectually dishonest. I read everything in full if I’m going to write about it.
What’s the book about then? It’s set in present-day London, England, (present-day without COVID-19, that is) and concerns a woman named Emma who is a Member of Parliament and is working on trying to have the anonymity of women who are victims of revenge porn protected in law so that their identities will not be revealed in the press. At the same time, Emma wants stiffer prison sentences for perpetrators of these revenge porn crimes. As a result, Emma is the victim of not only physical threats directed at her but all sorts of online harassment on social media: she regularly gets Tweets sent to her telling her that she should be raped, that she’s the word that starts with the letter “c” and rhymes with “stunt,” and all sorts of other misogynistic things. The barrage never ends. Well, it turns out that Emma — who is divorced — has a 14-year-old daughter named Flora who is being bullied at school. Flora takes matters into her own hands and secretly films one of her perpetrators changing out of her clothes right before Physical Education class. Flora sends the clip around, gets caught, and winds up with a police caution as a result. A tabloid journalist named Mike — with whom Emma has had a brief affair — catches wind of this, thinks it would be a great story (because it would expose Emma’s hypocrisy in trying to protect her daughter from unwanted public attention for the crime), and rabidly begins stalking Emma. Eventually, Mike winds up unconscious at the bottom of the stairs in Emma’s home, he then passes away in the hospital and Emma is soon finding herself charged with murder, even though she’s overwhelmingly innocent. Or is she?
That’s just the first third of the book. I have to say that the novel then shifts gears and becomes a courtroom thriller, and some of the tension is ratcheted down as the details leading up to the death get hashed out again and again. Thus, the book does get a little more soothing, so to speak. (If I can put it that way.) At least, it stops being so relentless with new ways to torture the main characters. However, it’s the first third of the book that’s almost unbearable to read. As a thriller, perhaps Reputation is a little too effective. It’s as though nothing positive can ever happen to Emma or Flora — it’s just one thing after another that is bad, not good, and mixed up. Some levity would have been helpful because — to be honest — the book is over the top. Reputation is a very uncomfortable read as much as it can be taut and gripping. It is successful as both a straight-ahead suspense novel and a legal thrill ride. However, the book really asks the question: how much is too much?
Therefore, I’m really torn about my assessment of Reputation. It’s a really good book and a commanding read, and I can see the appeal: it’s really timely in the post-#MeToo era. Still, reading this book as a man makes me wonder if being a woman is an absolutely shitty experience and if nothing good comes out of being a member of the fairer sex. This brings me to another point: life is short. Would you rather read a book that makes you feel good about yourself or a book that causes you to have butterflies at how unfairly some people are treated in society? Don’t get me wrong: there is a time and place for books in the second category, I suppose. It might be nice, though, if they’re tempered a bit with as much pleasure as there is pain. Reputation is just so dark, so bleak, and so hopeless, that it is a disconcerting and unnerving experience. It’s not a fun read. I don’t even know if this is something you should bring to the beach with you.
Maybe this book might go over differently with a female audience, but sympathetic male characters are few and far between here. That makes it a tough slog if you’re a male reader. In the end, I suppose this is just a long way of saying that I’m not sure about this novel. Maybe this is a sign that it’s an excellent book — a thriller is supposed to really mess with you, and this is precisely what this book does, especially at its start. It’s just that this novel might be too disquieting for some, which is an odd thing to say. I guess it really boils down to one thing: Reputation could have done with a little more even-handedness and the odd, good thing happening to its main characters, even if the ending is twisty but a relatively happy one (or as happy as you could expect from a novel of this type). Emma and Flora really don’t deserve all that they are put through. Reputation merits a caution, then. This isn’t so much a book about revenge porn; it’s emotional torture porn for what it does to the people who populate it, if not the reader, too.
Sarah Vaughan’s Reputation will be published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on July 5, 2022.
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