This darkly humorous exploration of gender and power follows a cantankerous female professor in the midst of a scandal.
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Why I love it
Author, Sweetbitter and Stray
As I read Julia May Jonas’s Vladimir, I thought, this is the novel I am always looking for. Dark east coast academia? Yep. Teachers with God complexes and secrets? Of course. Women over fifty in rabid lust? Yes, please. A world in which everyone is both a victim and a perpetrator? Check, check. These are hooks, undeniably sexy, but many novels check those boxes and fall apart. The most extraordinary accomplishment of this book is the voice that Jonas has found for the long-suffering, seemingly morally upright wife of the lecherous man. In the canon of unreliable narrators (think Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day) our unnamed middle-aged female professor ranks with the greats. She’s armed in self-delusion and on the verge of becoming unhinged.
A true mark of any novel’s worth is whether there’s lasting impact—it’s been months and I’m still reeling from the ending. We’re inundated with stories of #MeToo reckonings, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it can often be a broad thing. Vladimir takes a familiar story of sexual assault and victimhood but muddies it up. (It’s no accident that the book has echoes of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.) Jonas’s characters give this conversation about consent and sex and power all the nuance, complexity, and complicity that these situations take on in real life and she leaves those tensions messy. Which is the way I—and doubtless myriad other readers—prefer it.
"When I was a child, I loved old men, and I could tell that they also loved me."
And so we are introduced to our deliciously incisive narrator: a popular English professor whose charismatic husband at the same small liberal arts college is under investigation for his inappropriate relationships with his former students. The couple have long had a mutual understanding when it comes to their extra-marital pursuits, but with these new allegations, life has become far less comfortable for them both. And when our narrator becomes increasingly infatuated with Vladimir, a celebrated, married young novelist who’s just arrived on campus, their tinderbox world comes dangerously close to exploding.
With this bold, edgy, and uncommonly assured debut, author Julia May Jonas takes us into charged territory, where the boundaries of morality bump up against the impulses of the human heart. Propulsive, darkly funny, and wildly entertaining, Vladimir perfectly captures the personal and political minefield of our current moment, exposing the nuances and the grey area between power and desire.