This reading group guide for REPUTATION includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Sarah Vaughan. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction The bestselling author of Anatomy of a Scandal—now a Netflix series—returns with a new psychological thriller about a politician whose less-than-perfect personal life is thrust into the spotlight when a body is discovered in her home.
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As a politician, Emma has sacrificed a great deal for her career—including her marriage and her relationship with her daughter, Flora.
A former teacher, the glare of the spotlight is unnerving for Emma, particularly when it leads to countless insults, threats, and trolling as she tries to work in the public eye. As a woman, she knows her reputation is worth its weight in gold, but as a politician she discovers it only takes one slip-up to destroy it completely.
Fourteen-year-old Flora is learning the same hard lessons at school as she encounters heartless bullying. When another teenager takes her own life, Emma lobbies for a new law to protect women and girls from the effects of online abuse. Now, Emma and Flora find their personal lives uncomfortably intersected—but then, the unthinkable happens.
A man is found dead in Emma’s home. A man she had every reason to be afraid of and to want gone. Fighting to protect her reputation, and determined to protect her family at all costs, Emma is pushed to her limits as the worst happens and her life is torn apart.
Another breathless and twisty novel from an absolute “master of suspense” (CrimeReads
brilliantly illustrates that it isn’t who you are that matters . . . it’s who people think you are.Topics & Questions for Discussion (12-15 Discussion Questions)
1. Why do you think Sarah Vaughan chose to open with the scene of Mike’s murder? How is it effective in setting the novel’s tone and introducing us to Emma? What do you learn about Emma before you even know her name?
2. There are many pieces of ironic foreshadowing in the early chapters of the novel, including Emma’s t-shirt that reads “Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History.” Find other examples of foreshadowing and consider how they help set the mood of the novel.
3. There is much commentary in the novel on how women are judged by society and the gendered rules they must follow to maintain their good reputations. Emma comments that in her photoshoot, she thought she looked serious, but “I just looked as if I took myself seriously (a cardinal sin for a woman)” (p. 11). In what ways is taking oneself seriously as a woman shown to be a tricky thing to do in our world?
4. Compare and contrast the three main women in the novel, Emma, Flora, and Caroline. How are their motivations similar? How do they differ? Was there a character with whom you empathized more?
5. Before the murder, Emma has a good reputation, both in her public and private lives. Find examples of where and how her good reputation protects her. How do characters describe Emma? Would you describe her in the same way?
6. Emma’s motivation for going into politics was her father, who used to ask her “What are you going to do about it?” when faced with injustice. She explains, “[It] was the rallying cry that had inspired me to study politics and history, the first in my family to go to university” (29). How does knowing this detail about Emma influence your understanding of her subsequent choices? Do you think this rallying cry motivates other characters in the novel?
7. What details does Sarah Vaughan include to create the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere of Emma’s life in the days leading up to Mike’s murder? In what ways are they paralleled in the subsequent trial?
8. Although Flora more obviously deals with mean-girl bullying, adult women in the novel experience or make bullying remarks as well. How does the adult bullying resemble the teenage kind, and how does it differ? Do you think the stakes are any higher or lower?
9. Emma makes the decision to answer the detectives’ questions in her initial interview, despite her lawyer telling her not to comment. Emma explains her need to cooperate is “that old desire to be a good girl, to always answer questions” (158). Where else do you see Emma trying to please in a similar manner? Do Flora and Caroline do the same?
10. In addition to the epigraphs, Sarah Vaughan references other books when Emma looks at her friend Claire’s boyfriend’s books on page 180. His collection includes “Rawls’s Theory of Justice
; Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
; Bagehot’s The English Constitution
; set texts by Descartes, Berkeley, and Hume . . . There are a few thrillers” and “The Duchess of Malfi
.” Research these texts and see how they relate to Emma’s current situation. How do they emphasize the themes in REPUTATION
11. How responsible do you think Flora is for what happens at Emma’s home on December 8th? Flora blames herself, thinking, “If it wasn’t for Flora, then Mike would be alive, and her mum wouldn’t be . . . facing up to the fact that in a week’s time she might be in prison” (232). How did you feel about this assessment before the twist, and did you reconsider Flora’s feelings of guilt afterward?
12. After the verdict is reached, Emma answers a few questions from the press. When asked what she feels when she thinks about the night of December 8th, Emma responds that she feels “Shame and regret . . . There’s not one day when I don’t regret what happened” (259). Do you think Emma regrets what she did
or regrets getting caught
and having her reputation tarnished?
13. Were you shocked by the revelation that the whole family was somehow involved in the acts of December 8th and its cover-up? What elements surprised you the most? Would you have gone to the lengths Emma, Caroline, and David did to protect Flora?
14. Once you learn the second twist at the end—what part of Emma’s past she is so desperate to keep secret—go back and read a few of the key scenes. How do you understand them differently with your knowledge of the last few chapters of the novel? What techniques does Sarah Vaughan employ in order to give double meaning to many of Emma, Flora, and Caroline’s thoughts and statements? A Conversation with Sarah Vaughan (8-10 Questions) Q:
Sarah, you were a political journalist for many years. How did you draw upon your past job experiences to write REPUTATION
? A: I used the skills I learned as a political journalist: observing MPs, interviewing them, and researching key issues—such as revenge porn—and I drew on what I’d call “the texture of Westminster.” My knowledge of the protocols, the architecture, and of certain scenarios, such as the MP giving a statement outside a certain entrance. (Though there is some dramatic license. I know Emma’s question in Chapter Five is too long, for instance.) Equally, I used my experience having covered court cases to write the court scenes, although I also shadowed a criminal barrister in a two-week murder trial to make sure these [scenes] were accurate. When I was a political correspondent, Twitter didn’t exist, but it didn’t require much research to gain an idea of the extent of the misogynistic abuse experienced by women in public life. Q:
A character in the novel mentions that it’s surprising, considering the amount of online threats and trolling happening, that a politician hasn’t committed a murder or assault before. Was that a point of entry for you when you began writing this novel? Was there a first moment of inspiration that led to writing REPUTATION
A: The starting point was an interview with a female MP in which she described having nine locks on her front door and a panic alarm by the side of her bed. I wondered what it would be like to live under this level of abuse. At the same time, in the spring of 2019, several other women MPs—including my own—were experiencing extreme abuse online, in person, and via anonymous letters. I’d just written about a mother’s judgement being warped by postnatal anxiety in Little Disasters. Now I wondered how a public figure might act if she was exposed to threats from numerous different sources. If I put her in sufficient jeopardy, how might she react if she was filled with fear. Q:
Why did you choose to write Emma in the first-person point of view and all other characters in third person? What effect were you going for?
A: Writing her from the first person and the other characters from the third was a deliberate decision to privilege her viewpoint. It was an efficient way of getting inside her head and, I hoped, to try to engender sympathy. Q:
What were your favorite scenes to write? Were there any that were especially difficult to write?
A: I found myself most moved when writing the Flora scenes: I was bullied at school and there is a lot of me in Flora, Emma’s 14-year-old daughter. The most “fun” parts were probably those in the POV of the least attractive characters: Simon Baxter, a constituent who’s furious with Emma, and Marcus Jamieson, an academic-turned-extreme rightwing commentator. In fact, the easiest bits to write were Marcus’s shock jock tabloid columns. It felt like such a joy to write a bit of opinionated journalism. Perhaps I’ve missed my calling! Q:
What research did you need to do in order to bring this story to life?
A: I interviewed several MPs about their experience of abuse and the safety measures they’ve been forced to take; I shadowed a criminal barrister in a two-week murder trial and discussed points of law with them. I read Law Commission documents on potentially changing the law on revenge porn and news stories detailing victims’ experiences. I interviewed friends of my teenage daughter, and their parents, about online bullying; I talked to a forensic pathologist, who kindly talked me through injuries that would be sustained if someone fell down the stairs, and I read and corrected the appropriate passages. I checked details with an IT expert who gives evidence in court cases, and an electrician to ensure a plot detail made sense; and I ran my police interviews past the retired detective turned police procedural adviser I work with, who also advised me on blood spatter. The bulk of it was written once the pandemic had started, so I had to rely on Google Maps a little since we weren’t allowed more than five miles from our home, but I chose to write about areas of London I already knew. Q:
Many of your novels depict the moral challenges faced by women balancing high-pressure jobs and high-pressure family issues. What intrigues you about intense situations and the questions that arise from them?
A: Great question. I suppose people react in dramatic and sometimes unexpected ways when they’re put in intense situations, and that hopefully leads to a compelling, exciting read. Although I try to write beautifully, I’m writing books which are marketed as thrillers, even if they are also psychological dramas, and so having a great hook and strong plot is crucial: I’m not an Elizabeth Strout or Anne Tyler (more’s the pity). When I was researching this book, a detective told me no one could swear they would never commit murder. His argument was that if one of my children was being physically threatened, or worse, I might do so. I’m interested in putting women in high-pressure situations and seeing what happens then. Q:
Was there a character whose point of view you especially liked writing from? Who did you find most challenging to write?
A: Having said I loved writing the Marcus columns, I also enjoyed writing from Mike’s viewpoint. I was a journalist for fifteen years, and so there was a certain nostalgia in conjuring up those years. I probably found Caroline the most challenging to write. We don’t necessarily view her sympathetically, and I wanted to play with the wicked stepmother trope but still ensure people were sufficiently invested in and intrigued by her to want to continue to read. Q:
At what stage did you decide that Flora wasn’t the only thing Emma was protecting? How did you go about writing scenes where you could only hint at what was really at stake and what Emma’s true motivations were? A: As soon as I knew Marcus was going to be a character (and we have our first reference to him in Chapter Nine. It wasn’t something I seeded in later drafts.) At the risk of creating a spoiler, I do think her desire to protect Flora is uppermost: she might have reacted in the way in which she does even without the added motivation we learn of at the very end. Q:
Why did you decide you wanted to explore what one’s reputation means—and what it means to tarnish it, or be protected by it? What intrigued you about the issues surrounding the idea of a good reputation?
A: Reputation is the third of my novels to explore the judgment women are exposed to. In Anatomy of a Scandal, I’m asking the reader—and jury—to judge Olivia in a rape trial (and to judge Sophie’s behaviour in remaining loyal to her husband and Kate’s in prosecuting him). In Little Disasters, it’s mothering that’s scrutinized: Liz makes a professional judgment about whether Jess is a good-enough mother, and the mums at the school gate all chime in. With Reputation I’m looking at how high-profile women are judged as they navigate public life, and how teenage girls are bullied by their peers. I didn’t set out to explore the theme of reputation but I knew early on that the Duchess of Malfi was an influence, and then as soon as I remembered the Othello quote I use as an epigraph it all slotted into place. In all three books, I’m conscious that a woman’s reputation is more precarious than a man’s—by which I mean we still judge women more harshly than their male counterparts and are less forgiving. Q:
What are you working on next?
A: I don’t want to give away any details but another thriller/psychological drama about power and judgment, again inspired by news stories. Enhance Your Book Club (3-5 Enhance Your Book Club Suggestions)
1. Find a recorded or live production of Othello
or The Duchess of Malfi
and watch it as a group. Discuss why Sarah Vaughan chose to use quotes from both plays for REPUTATION
’S epigraph. How do they relate to her novel? Are there other lines you would have chosen to use?
2. Find a recent article about a female politician. See how the woman is described by the journalist and compare it with the ways Emma is described in the novel’s fictional media reports. What have you learned about the depiction of women in the media by reading Sarah Vaughan’s novel? Are there elements you’ll be more wary of when you read or watch the news or scroll through social media now?
3. Check out more of Sarah Vaughan’s books, such as ANATOMY OF A SCANDAL
and LITTLE DISASTERS
. To find out more about Sarah, visit sarahvaughanauthor.com, or follow her on Twitter @SVaughanauthor.