Vladimir by Julia May Jonas

Don’t be fooled – or put-off – by the cover of Julia May Jonas’s debut novel, Vladimir. Sure, it looks like something featuring Fabio but it is in fact a twist on campus-lit.

The 58-year-old unnamed narrator is a popular English professor at a small liberal arts college in New England. Her charismatic husband, head of department at the same college, is under investigation for a number of inappropriate relationships with former students, that had taken place decades prior. Although the couple have long had a mutual understanding when it comes to their extra-marital pursuits, the allegations sit uncomfortably in the present day where the #MeToo movement has created a new paradigm.

At one point we would have called these affairs consensual, for they were, and were conducted with my tacit understanding that they were happening. Now, however, young women have apparently lost all agency in romantic entanglements. Now my husband was abusing his power, never mind that power is the reason they desired him in the first place.

Enter Vladimir Vladinski, a celebrated, ‘experimental’ novelist and junior professor of literature. The narrator becomes infatuated with Vladimir, and at the same time is juggling the fall-out from her husband’s suspension. She is forced to reckon with the personal and political implications of her circumstances, and her students are quick to remind her that rightly or wrongly, we are often accountable under today’s standards for past behavior. Of the excuse that ‘it was a different time’, she says –

That kind of excuse leads to cultural stultification, it perpetuates misogyny and racism, it is general and not interesting.

But goes on to say –

I’m fully willing to admit that my remaining with my husband – not standing by his actions, necessarily, but simply remaining in relationship to him – may be a product of my own internalized sexism. Certainly, how could it not be.

The story does not dwell on her husband’s suspension per se, but rather how it effects her. A handful of scenes reveal the exquisite double standard –

John was acting just like the women who accused him. He was being wronged, goddamnit. While there was a part of him, I knew, that understood I was suffering too, he still cherished the sense that he was the most drastically injured party. He grasped his being wronged like a precious gem in a velvet pouch.

This book could have easily become bogged down by cultural and political statements, however, by choosing to tell the story from a first-person perspective, and revealing the narrator’s insecurities and vulnerabilities, Jonas keeps it personal and relatable. It also serves to remind the reader that although women of a certain age are frequently deemed ‘invisible’, they have needs. Our narrator is clear about what she wants – professional recognition, acknowledgement from her daughter, food, cigarettes, and lust (not sex).

Cigarettes are best when they are accompanied by intense moods – happiness, anger, defeat. No cigarette is better than the one that follows a torrential cry. I had a friend who used to call them ’emotion suppressors’ but it’s more like they complement emotions, like a good wine complements a meal.

There are elements of the plot that I haven’t revealed, but all parts of the story offer a nuanced take on power (including an excellent commentary on the relationship between art and morality). The narrator’s reflections on ageing are an added bonus, and a number of scenes where she acts impulsively and then pays the price the next day (with aches and pains, and monster hangovers) are funny and accurate.

The distraction of my colleague, as intriguing as it was, had made me feel ridiculous and undignified, desperate, weak, and grasping.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the ending of this story, but by the time I got there, it didn’t matter. I had thoroughly enjoyed the moral binds that Jonas wove in at every turn, and I’m now on a mission to get my book group reading Vladimir – lots for ‘mature women’ to discuss.

I received my copy of Vladimir from the publisher, Avid Reader Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

4/5 Fun.

“I mean, a martini, now, why not,” said Vladimir, sounding titillated by the prospect.
“I make them with vodka so you know. They are suburban martinis. Dirty, and wet, with lots of olive juice and vermouth.”

12 responses

  1. Pingback: I’m waiting for… 2022 edition | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

    • Agree! I would have dismissed it had I not read the Readings review.

      The alternative cover (red with a woman with her forehead on a wall – yes, another cover like this) doesn’t really make sense. The one with the man, as well as the Lolita parallels is clever within context.

  2. I forget if you follow the football Kate, but I’m a Hawthorn supporter and Jeff Kennett, regrettably our club president, is in the papers saying the club is not racist, despite Indigenous past players saying that it is.

    The thing is that ‘racist’ like ‘consensual’ is defined by old white men for their own benefit for as long as they can get away with it. Unlike the wife/narrator here I don’t believe that past acceptance of predatory behaviour makes it right, or its later punishment unjustified.

    Do you think the author takes the same position as her protagonist?

    • Catching up because I was on the road when this was published.

      I had the some comment/question that Bill had. Just because they “say” it’s consensual, and even if the women “agree” it’s consensual, there is too much power differential here in teacher-student situations to make all that justification murky. Although the situation was very different, it’s partly why feminists were so angry with Helen Garner and The First Stone. She didn’t seem to recognise the power-imbalance issue.

      This sounds really interesting for teasing out the situation from different POVs to the usual one.

      The cover might be clever but I wouldn’t have opened the book presuming it was something else!

      • It was interesting because of the different POV, and the power imbalance is explored in lots of ways (including in a few plot points that I deliberately haven’t mentioned – can’t give it all away!).

        Based on the cover, I would have bypassed this book completely, but I read a review that piqued my interest. I guess a cover like this one is a risk because it alienates the very readers who you want.

    • No, I don’t think the author takes the same position as the protagonist, but instead has created the character and the set of circumstances to deliberately spotlight the issue. It becomes particularly interesting when her own students call her out on her support of her husband because, there too is a power imbalance. It’s very clever.

      And we’re in heated agreement about the fact that past acceptance doesn’t make it right.

      PS. I love the footy – Go Blues!

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