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Sarah Vaughan, the bestselling author of ANATOMY OF A SCANDAL (now a hit Netflix series), returns with REPUTATION, a taut psychological thriller that gets deep into the psyches of women faced with immense moral strain.

A lifelong teacher and champion of justice, Emma Webster has worked hard and refused to take “no” for an answer in her campaign to become one of the few female members of Parliament. A member of the Labour party, Emma has spent her career criticizing her government’s unwillingness to help its neediest --- including her own constituents, whose reliance on food banks has proliferated in recent years --- and promoting her own agenda to enact harsher punishments for distributors of revenge porn.

When we meet Emma, she is in the middle of her first national newspaper feature, an article with the Guardian, which will give her some weight with the public and help her broadcast her goals to the wider nation. But the interview gets off to a rocky start when Emma is dressed in black leather and crimson red lipstick, her hair blown dry into a sleek bob. She looks every bit the warrior you want fighting for your rights, but she also looks distinctly sexy, almost brazen. And everyone knows what happens when a powerful woman is perceived as sexual.

"This smart, tautly woven thriller compels, engages and approaches difficult subjects --- revenge porn, misogyny and the control of the patriarchy --- with a keen eye and an unflinching gaze."

The article is well received, for the most part, but as a public figure, Emma is no stranger to hate mail, disgusting tweets and rage-filled, violent messages. Poking fun at her commitment to putting an end to revenge porn and other acts of sexual violence, men tweet that “she wouldn’t even be worth sexually assaulting” (I’ve cleaned up some language, but you get the idea).

A few days later, during her open hours to greet constituents and hear their complaints, a senior veteran becomes dangerously angry. He demands to know why Emma only cares about women’s rights when men are suffering too --- men who, like his son, have come back from fighting for their country damaged, poor and broken. There are no good answers for Emma; she has worked too hard and fought too long to get one bill passed than to change course now. Of course she cares about veterans, but she feels she has an obligation to speak up for women everywhere. Women like Amy Jones.

The daughter of conservative Christians, Amy’s entire world was dismantled when her ex-boyfriend distributed a video of her engaging in sex acts. Her parents, who did not even know she was sexually active, were shocked, and she was utterly devastated. So devastated, in fact, that she took her own life, turning her ex-boyfriend’s “technological crime” into what most would call a murder. With the help of Chronicle reporter Mike Stokes, Emma shines a light on Amy’s case and moves forward with passing legislation that will promise anonymity for victims of revenge porn. When the two celebrate a productive partnership, one based on careful communication and mutual respect, a line is crossed and Emma’s reputation as a politician and a woman are put at risk.

But while Emma has been fighting for the rights of women, she has failed to notice some serious injustices in her own home. Her daughter, Flora, has been the victim of targeted and ongoing bullying by her best friends. In a moment of desperation, she commits a crime of her own, one that will threaten everything her mother has fought for. The stress of Flora’s indiscretion, her own fears that her relationship with the press has been fractured, and the ever-more violent and hateful tweets, messages and attacks turn the once indefatigable and unflappable Emma paranoid and angry. Then she comes home to a man in her house, and only one of them survives the encounter.

Is Emma a cold, calculating murderer, or a woman forced to live in a patriarchal, misogynistic world where sitting down and taking it is criticized just as much as standing up for oneself? As Vaughan walks us through a criminal case and a legal battle for justice, we are forced to contend with some difficult moral queries, made all the more gripping by her masterly control of her reveals. This smart, tautly woven thriller compels, engages and approaches tough subjects --- revenge porn, misogyny and the control of the patriarchy --- with a keen eye and an unflinching gaze. In her fight to protect her own hard-earned reputation and that of her daughter’s, Emma is faced with serious moral dilemmas, ones that will no doubt inspire many thought-provoking conversations.

Whether you find REPUTATION as thrilling as her earlier works (I’m a huge fan of LITTLE DISASTERS) or a bit of a departure, there is no doubt that Sarah Vaughan is a skewering, incisive writer of harsh truths and a skilled interpreter of the injustices present in everyday life.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on July 15, 2022

by Sarah Vaughan