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Vladimir by Julia May Jonas
Literary fiction

Vladimir

Debut

We love supporting debut authors. Congrats, Julia May Jonas, on your first book!

by Julia May Jonas

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Quick take

This darkly humorous exploration of gender and power follows a cantankerous female professor in the midst of a scandal.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Cerebral

    Cerebral

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Unreliable

    Unreliable narrator

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_SalaciousPeach

    Salacious

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Snarky

    Snarky

Synopsis

"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.

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Get an early look from the first pages of Vladimir.
Vladimir

Prologue

When I was a child, I loved old men, and I could tell that they also loved me. They loved how eager I was to please them, how much I wanted them to think well of me. They would wink at me, and find me precocious. I would encounter them at church, and at family gatherings, and as friends of my friends’ parents. They were the husbands of my dance instructors, or my science or history teachers.

Their approval filled me with pleasure. When I remember my childhood I am wearing a white dress with a blue accent. Girls in white dresses—a song written by an old man. This is not what I wore but it is what I remember myself wearing, especially when I interacted with old men. I remember feeling like a classic young girl, and thinking that my goodness shone out of me. Goodness and intelligence radiated from my eyes, and the men recognized it, even the oldest and most cantankerous.

I still like many of the things old men tend to enjoy. Jazz music, folk music, the blues, guitar virtuosity. Long, well-researched histories. Existentialists and muscular writers. Depravity, and funny, violent criminals. Emotional rock ’n’ roll. Meanness. I like folksy stories of city life, or country life, or anecdotes about political history. I like clever jokes, and talking about the mechanics of jokes, and turns of phrase, and card games, and war stories.

What I like most about old men now, however, and the reason I often feel that perhaps I am an old man more than I am an oldish white woman in her late fifties (the identity I am burdened with publicly presenting, to my general embarrassment), is that old men are composed of desire. Everything about them is wanting. They have appetites for food, boats, vacations, entertainment. They want to be stimulated. They want to sleep. They are guided by desire—their world is made up of their desires. For the old men who I am thinking of (and perhaps I mean a certain kind of old man that I encountered and that has enshrined itself in my mind from youth), they do not know or cannot imagine a kind of world that is not completely and totally guided by a sense of wanting and getting. And of course, they desire the adoration of a sexual partner, even if only in their imaginations, through the blue light of their television screens.

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Why I love it

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.

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Member ratings (11,887)

  • Jennifer H.

    Winston Salem, NC

    This book was just full of surprises, especially at the end. I don’t think it’s like any other book I’ve ever read, but it’s captivating and I really enjoyed it. I definitely recommend reading it!

  • Andrea H.

    Chicago, IL

    not at all the steamy romance I was promised—SO much more! insightful and provocative, feminist and nuanced with a unique perspective (&tbh it feels sexist that it was labeled “unreliable narrator”)

  • Juliana M.

    New York, NY

    Terrible cover aside, it’s an interesting examination on what it is to be a white feminist of a certain age in academia. Cringeworthy at times but well developed all around. Didn’t see the end coming.

  • Beth W.

    Mooresville, NC

    I thoroughly enjoyed Jonas’ writing style. I loved seeing the world through a complicated, aging woman who was both likable and unlikable. An entertaining story of the internal life vs. the external.

  • Devan M.

    Bellefonte, PA

    A bold & lacerating look at female desire, aging, & power with an intriguing (& sometimes cringey) MC who lingers in my mind. By the end I felt unsettled & bleak, but I can’t deny that I was riveted.

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