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When readers meet the unnamed narrator of Julia May Jonas’ debut novel, she is writing about her lifelong affection for older men as she watches the younger man who is tied up in front of her. A tenured professor of English literature, she has kidnapped and drugged her colleague on the day of her husband’s sexual misconduct hearing.

VLADIMIR is both an account of her obsession with the titular character and her ruminations on her personal and professional life. She is wily and often dishonest with those around her, even as she thinks she lays herself bare to her audience. In her, Jonas has penned a frustrating yet compelling character --- smart, vain, callous, surprisingly maternal, and struggling with what it means to be an aging woman.

"This is a mostly entertaining and consistently challenging novel that approaches feminism, academia, marriage and late middle age with a cynical and winking eye."

At 58, the narrator has some years left in her career. But it has been decades since her second novel was published, and it is not as easy as it once was to really connect with the students at her small liberal arts college. Her daughter, Sidney, is a lawyer, and looming large is her husband’s hearing. Having been accused of sexual relations with at least seven female students over the years and relieved of his teaching duties, John may be asked to resign from administrative duties as well. Throughout the process, from accusations to public hearings, the narrator has continued to teach at the school where she and John have spent most of their working lives in the same department. Now her students are judging her differently, and her fellow professors are voting on whether or not she should step away from teaching. Into this fray comes Vladimir.

Vladimir and his wife, Cynthia, are up-and-coming writers who have joined the faculty. The narrator is immediately drawn to Vladimir physically and agonizes over how to draw him to her with a mix of maternal and sexual charm. As John’s hearing approaches and she comes to suspect a new affair, and as her own worries about her age and status spiral, she concocts a desperate plan to steal Vladimir away. But when he responds to her advances in the ways she had imagined, she finds herself repulsed. Once again, all she knew about herself and her needs, desires and beliefs is called into doubt.

VLADIMIR is well-written, insightful and darkly humorous, yet the narrator is unlikable and difficult to trust. She is obsessed with aging, her changing body and her own sensual needs --- from food to drink to literature to sex. Readers see all too well her need for acceptance, value and worth, contrary to her own assertions. The more she claims to be unbothered by the allegations against her husband and insists on her earthy pleasures, the less believable she is. It is not always clear if Jonas means this to be the case. Still, she has penned an interesting character.

The prose is biting, and the pace is swift. Always in tight control of her tale, Jonas parallels the narrator and her family with that of Vladimir and his family in clever ways that readers are keenly aware of, but the narrator either doesn’t understand or chooses to ignore. Vladimir and Cynthia, even with their own background of trauma, represent promise and beginnings, and are great foils to the narrator and John as they contemplate endings. This is a mostly entertaining and consistently challenging novel that approaches feminism, academia, marriage and late middle age with a cynical and winking eye.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on February 11, 2022

by Julia May Jonas

  • Publication Date: January 31, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1982187646
  • ISBN-13: 9781982187644