Vladimir, Julia May Jonas’s much-lauded debut novel, tells the story of an unnamed English professor at a small college in upstate New York. She and her husband John cohabitate in a house filled with the detritus of a long marriage, of “times passed and things seen.” Their academic lives are winding down; John has recently been suspended for a series of accusations about sexual misconduct with former students. Their adult daughter lives in the city.
While I wouldn’t call the narrator happy, she has carved out a life for herself. She forgives her husband’s transgressions believing that the accusations against him demonstrate a “lack of self-regard these women have – the lack of their own confidence.” She and John have had a long-standing arrangement: they can sleep with other people without acrimony.
Her life begins to unravel a little with the arrival of celebrated novelist Vladimir Vladinski, the new young professor who has come to teach at the college. Her attraction to him is immediate.
I wanted to be intimate with him, so deeply intimate, from that moment that I saw him with his legs crossed in the reflection of the window. It was as if an entirely new world had opened up for me, or if not a world, a pit, with no bottom – a continual experience of the exhilarating delirium of falling.
The narrator’s infatuation is problematic and not just because of their age difference: she is 58 and he is 40. He is married with a young daughter, too. His wife, Cynthia, is a brilliant, albeit troubled, writer. None of this impedes the narrator’s fantasies, though. She imagines scenarios where Vladimir returns her feelings; they are physically and intellectually aligned.
But the narrator also realizes that she is perhaps past the point where she is sexually alluring.
…as I looked in the bathroom mirror at the webbing around my eyes, my frowning jowls, and the shriveled space between my clavicles, I felt desperation at the idea that I would never captivate anyone ever again. A man might make a concession for me based on mutual agreeability, shared crinkliness, but he wouldn’t, he couldn’t, be in my thrall.
The narrator’s obsession with Vladimir deepens and about three quarters of the way through the novel the story takes a weird left turn. I am not sure I was 100% on board with the last quarter of the book, but it in no way undermined my enjoyment of the book overall. It has interesting things to say about academia, desire, family and marriage and female agency. It is also beautifully written and as a woman of a certain age not too far removed from the narrator, I felt seen on many levels..