Source: Review copy
Publication: 26 May 2022 from Picador
My thanks to Picador for an advance copy for review
A provocative, razor-sharp, and timely debut novel about a beloved English professor facing a slew of accusations against her professor husband by former students – a situation that becomes more complicated when she herself develops an obsession of her own . . .
When I was a child, I loved old men, and I could tell that they also loved me.
And so we meet our deliciously incisive narrator: a popular English professor whose husband, a charismatic professor 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 extramarital 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 tinder-box world comes dangerously close to exploding.
With her bold, edgy, and uncommonly assured literary debut, Julia May Jonas takes us into charged territory, where the strictures of morality bump up against the impulses of the human heart. Propulsive, darkly funny, and surreptitiously moving, Vladimir maps the personal and political minefield of our current moment, exposing the messy contradictions of power and desire.
Our unnamed protagonist is a 58 year old College Professor in the US, teaching English Literature. Her husband, John, stands accused of inappropriate sexual relationships with several students, albeit in the times before the College explicitly banned such relationships.
The couple have always had an open marriage and we know this because this story is told by John’s wife throughout. It’s a fascinating and debate raising novel. The timing gleefully encompasses both the immense sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s and today’s #MeToo movement. Two occurrences which are in direct contradiction of each other.
Our narrator has a good conceit of herself. She prides herself on her ability to connect with her students and at the same time she feels scorn for those who have brought their accusations against her husband for his abuse of power, because, after all, was it not that very power that attracted them in the first place? Yet she finds that both her status and her own feminism are now challenged by the very students who used to hang on her every word.
Her relationship with her own daughter, Sid, a lawyer and a lesbian is less successful. Indeed, her family life is all but dead, as she and her husband barely converse and Sid and she clash over pretty much everything. Now she is not enjoying the knowledge that her students are looking on her and pitying her; feeling the need to offer their advice that she should not be standing by her cheating partner.
She is also increasingly drawn to a newly arrived married colleague, Vladimir Vladinski, whose debut novel is remarkable. She is a writer of small success and she sees in Vladimir a younger version of herself. Now she is getting older and her body less beautiful, she finds herself drawn in a provocative, sexual way to this man with a beautiful body and a beautiful mind. The fact that Vladimir is both a husband and a father and that his wife is fragile as a result of depression is dismissed in her mind, or at least serves only to make him more attractive.
Her sexual fantasies in relation to Vladimir grow and with her newly re-engaged longing, she finds again the desire to write, alongside the emergence of a plan for deliberate seduction.
Vladimir beautifully portrays the sexual politics of today in the rarified world of academia. Touching on cancel culture, confronting ageing and challenging the idea of the non-sexual post-menopausal woman, Julia Jonas creates a thoughtful contribution to the current debate on ideas and freedom of expression in literature.
The comparisons with Nabokov are interesting and there’s a lot to think about in this detailed and multi-layered character study. I greatly enjoyed the journey and my thoughts keep returning to some of the book’s themes – and that in itself makes it a winner for me.
Julia May Jonas is a playwright and teaches theatre at Skidmore College. She holds an MFA in playwriting from Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn with her family. Vladimir is her debut novel.