Book review: desire and danger in razor-sharp campus novel Vladimir by Julia May Jonas ★★★★

You may also know this book by this very sultry cover.

This is a blistering, subversive, unputdownable read. Which really, you should be able to tell from the cover with the half-naked man.

In a liberal arts college in upstate New York, our narrator – an English professor in her fifties – has fallen madly in lust with Vladimir, a fellow faculty member in his forties. At the same time, her husband John is facing suspension over a series of allegations of sexual impropriety – he had multiple affairs with students in the past (and a tacit understanding with his wife: ‘When I suggested the availability of freedom he didn’t need much encouragement—he is still a cad, I like cads, and he is one.’)

The students aren’t happy with her for standing by her man. They plead with her to feel empowered enough to leave him, they sign petitions. Their discontent threatens her own position with the department. She finds this all rather tiresome. Her concerns are her husband (who mildly infuriates her most of the time), her daughter (an only child) who has problems of her own, her desire to write something of value. And her infatuation with Vladimir.

Jonas flips the male gaze on its head as we see Vladimir through – and only through – the eyes of the narrator. She describes him in uncomfortable detail, eating him up. Her obsession with him fuels her ability to write, and she writes in frenzies.

I loved how the characters explored the nature of art – writing in particular – a writer writing about writers talking about writing is one of my favourite things.

‘We talked about the rise of autofiction, and how most of the creative-writing students at the college did not even want to write fiction, but creative nonfiction instead, and primarily autofiction and memoir. I said it was because they were so obsessed with themselves they couldn’t imagine existing outside of their viewpoint. John said it came from an anxiety about representing identities and experiences other than their own. Vlad posited it was because they had grown up online, representing themselves via avatars, building brands and presences and constructions of selves before they even knew that’s what they were doing.’

It was hard to agree with the narrator on her views of her husband’s transgressions, but it was easy to like her in a perverse way, to be swept up in her razor-sharp and nuanced view of the world and rich inner life. We rarely see fifty-something women in literature with unapologetic desires.

THEN… there’s a jaw-dropping moment two thirds in when the stakes all get ratcheted up a notch. I’ll leave it there so as not to give any spoilers – but this was such a seductive, wry, complex novel that resists easy categorization – if that sounds like your cup of tea, go get it on your TBR.

4.25*

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