Vaughan's book touches on a controversial theme: the impact of rape and why so many women are drawn to and repelled by dangerous men. Unfolding in a tone almost cinematic in its complexity, Vaughan's intense story begins in the first-person voice of Kate Woodcroft QC, a criminal barrister at the Old Bailey. Kate is haunted by a tragic event from her past, an incident which has made her feel "like an imposter in her own skin." Single, divorced and childless--and also a highly experienced specialist in prosecuting sexual crimes, particularly rape--Kate is not the persona she presents in court.
Kate decides to defend Olivia Lytton, who says she was raped by James Whitehouse. All of the evidence hints at his guilt. He's a sexual predator and a sociopath; an extreme sense of entitlement lurks beneath James's charming exterior. "I fear it's evident that I am losing my objectivity," says Kate. She decides to tackle the case with gusto, sure in her heart that she can finally get some justice for Olivia. Blonde, well-connected, and ambitious, Olivia worked as James's parliamentary researcher. She was also having a five-month affair with him that he had abruptly broken off a week earlier.
James confesses to Sophie, his beautiful, fragile wife, that he has made a foolish mistake: "it was just sex, and I was flattered." No one, especially the British press, can predict the damaging fallout that takes James to a much more corrosive level: an accusation of rape and the mystery surrounding what really happened when they had intercourse in a lift just off the committee corridor in the heart of the House of Commons. Was it an act forced on Miss Lytton by the defendant? Was it in fact rape? Or was it an act of passion, a frenzied bout of lovemaking by two individuals caught up the heat of the moment?
Vaughan attempts to dissects the allegation from both Kate and Sophie's points of view (and occasionally James's). This is a moral dilemma that blurs the distinction between consensual sex and rape. Sophie is a likable if put-upon character who becomes even more so as the plot moves along and she becomes increasingly obsessed with what really happened between her husband and his mistress. Sophie imagines a veneer of serenity encasing her, a hard, impenetrable varnish that begins to tarnish her view of her husband. She's never imagined that James would lie to her, though she recognizes that "it's all part of the job"--a willingness to be economical with the truth, a prerequisite that seems to fit in with being a privileged government minister.
So, it begins, the court case recounting the seeds of an affair, sown on balmy late-spring night as the sky turned navy and James tried to limit himself to a single beer. He maintains he has done nothing illegal. that there's no crime in having "a quick fling." He still has the prime minister's patronage. Still, Sophie begins to despise her husband's show of sanctimony, how he plays "the penitent politician." As Kate assesses the marriage she thought was founded on love and trust, and a sex life she has done "her very best to maintain," she remembers her time at Oxford College in the autumn of 1992 when she befriended Holly, a working-class girl on a scholarship to read English. In a voice fraught with the same mixture of innocence and pressing motivation, Holly recounts her first time at the College, the relentless feasting of her senses, a daily bombardment of new sights. Holly, however, fails to see the "lighter side" of Sophie's friends, a group of indulged young men led by James and his best friend, Tom, who flaunt their privilege through their radical behavior.
Vaughan melds the three women together, portraying their inner lives with a poignant appeal for building self-confidence and abuse awareness. As Kate's memories and thoughts come together, the reader sees the issue as far greater than just a high-profile trial concerning a rape. Kate's life becomes a kaleidoscope as she is ambushed by a wave of sorrow, an ache that engulfs her so entirely that she can neither succumb nor suppress it. Kate has made compromises and bent her opinions, yet the issue of rape continues to drive her. The likelihood of James Whitehouse getting off begins to affect Kate in a way it usually wouldn't: "with all the heat of my fury, I am good at remaining emotionally detached." Kate begins to seek her revenge on all the smooth, smiling faces of men "who sail through life - Eton, Oxford, Parliament and Government." Sophie is also out for retribution as she finally realizes she has "sleep-walked through her marriage," forced to confront James's failings when they are finally revealed in court. Replete with privilege, James always hints at a fine intelligence and an exclusive education.
In a case that hinges on Olivia's bruise, her ripped knickers, and her version of what happened in the lift, Vaughan's novel separates the actions of the victim from the linear narratives of the news and the legal system. In today's environment, where people herald the #MeToo movement while discussing whether some women might actually be responsible for provoking rapists, Anatomy of a Scandal isolates the horror of rape and thoughtfully illuminates the surrounding irrelevance.