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About The Book

An NPR, Washington Post, Time, People, Vulture, Guardian, Vox, Kirkus Reviews, Newsweek, LitHub, and New York Public Library Best Book of the Year * “Delightful…cathartic, devious, and terrifically entertaining.” —The New York Times * “Timely, whip-smart, and darkly funny.” —People (Book of the Week) * One of Shondaland’s 13 Best College-Set Novels of All Time

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 are introduced to our narrator who’s “a work of art in herself” (The Washington Post): a popular English professor whose charismatic husband 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 extra-marital 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.

“Timely, whip-smart, and darkly funny” (People), Vladimir takes us into charged territory, where the boundaries of morality bump up against the impulses of the human heart. This edgy, uncommonly assured debut perfectly captures the personal and political minefield of our current moment, exposing the nuances and the grey area between power and desire.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Vladimir includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Julia May Jonas. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Soon after we meet our narrator—a beloved, discerning, sharply funny fifty-eight-year-old English professor at a small upstate college—we discover that she is reluctantly embroiled in the backlash from her husband’s past affairs with students. With the couple’s satisfactory “don’t ask, don’t tell” arrangement upended by the resulting Title IX investigation and the unyielding sexual strictures of the day, our narrator nurses an obsession for her new department colleague Vladimir Vladinski, who has recently arrived on campus with his equally celebrated and attractive wife. Meanwhile, her adult daughter has slunk back home after a domestic crisis of her own, and our narrator finds herself navigating her roles as mother, wife, mentor, and object of desire as her fixation with Vladimir escalates to alarming heights. Audacious, playful, and wise, Vladimir offers us a high-stakes reading experience that is as gloriously entertaining as it is destabilizing, forcing us to question everything we thought we knew about the capricious and entangled matters of the heart.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Brainstorm some adjectives you would use to describe the narrator, John, Vladimir, Cynthia, and Sid. Do they share any words in common? What aspects of their identities create the biggest rifts between them?

2. The cultural gap between the narrator’s generation and that of her students—particularly in regards to sexual mores and gendered expectations—figures prominently in Vladimir. Recall the note she writes about her class plans (page 6), her thought process after the “Dump His Ass” confrontation (page 30-31), or her discussion with John and Vladimir about the rise of autofiction (page 45). Which of her opinions do you agree with, if any?

3. The narrator mentions her mother in a few anecdotes, and her relationship with Sid, who becomes a mother by the novel’s last pages, is a central thread in the book. What is the role of motherhood in Vladimir? How does the instinct to mother shape the narrator’s character?

4. Throughout Vladimir, the narrator dispenses bon mots and scathingly funny observations about everything from her well-coiffed colleague’s attachment to her brush to the way a slumped Vladimir resembles a young Sid asleep in her car seat (page 108, 175). How does the narrator wield humor? What are some lines that made you chuckle?

5. In what ways does the narrator diverge from traditional gender roles and how does she conform to them? Reflect on her arrangement and understanding with John, her career trajectory, and her simultaneous disgust and obsession with her own vanity. How does this complicate her feelings for Vladimir?

6. On page 61, Cynthia visits the narrator’s office and confesses, “‘. . . I want to know you, and I want you to know me. Do you think that’s strange?’” (page 61). Why do you think Cynthia is drawn to the narrator? Are her motivations genuine, or cynical as the narrator suspects? How does the narrator’s jealousy of Cynthia propel the plot forward?

7. The narrator’s fantasies about Vladimir span the purely erotic to melancholy Europe-set reveries about an extended life together. What does she ultimately want from Vladimir? If Vladimir left his family for her, what would happen?

8. John and the narrator unsuccessfully attempt to save a bird from itself as it rams against their window, leading the former to remark, “‘The symbolism is a bit heavy-handed, don’t you think?’”—an inside joke between the two of them (page 105). Can you remember other reoccurring scenes or motifs? What do you think is their implication?

9. The leering man at the diner is just one example of detestable male behavior that we are privy to in Vladimir, and yet the narrator commits the worst crime of all. How does gender affect your feelings about her actions in the final third of the book?

10. In the end, John and the narrator remain together and adopt the life of a docile, aging couple. What do you think of their decision? Has the narrator’s experience with Vladimir changed her feelings about John’s affairs with students? What is revealed of her psyche in the final chapter, and especially the final line?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. From Rebecca to Cheri to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Jonas sprinkles literary and cultural references of the well-read upper-middle class throughout Vladimir. Write down a list of as many you can find and split up into groups to look them up. Can you find any connections to the novel and the themes within it? You could also come up with a list of other unmentioned novels that deal with transgressive lust, aging womanhood, and messy desire, and discuss how these selections differ from or are similar to Vladimir.

2. Break up into groups to brainstorm a title and jacket summary for Vladimir’s book. Refer to pages 164 and 234 for inspiration. Bonus points if you sketch a cover design.

3. The concept for Vladimir originated as a play, and now it’s your opportunity to cast it! Choose your top picks for the main roles, and make a case to the larger group about who would best embody each character.

A Conversation with Julia May Jonas

The epigraph of Vladimir is a quote from Electra, and at the end of the novel the narrator thinks back to the Greek tragedy as she stands at John’s door in his rehab facility. To your mind, how do these two characters resonate with each other?

Electra in Sophocles’ play embodies the idea of the perpetual adolescent—she must reject her home but is not yet ready to enter the world. Adolescence is transformation, in all its ugliness and awkwardness. Electra feels oppressed by her lack of ability to take action until, of course she does (Electra eventually convinces Orestes, her brother, to kill her mother Clytemnestra in retribution for Clytemnestra’s murder of father). She’s also entranced by the force of her own feelings, in that particularly teenaged way, and the spell of her emotions prevents her from seeing the world, and the consequences of her actions, clearly.

While our narrator isn’t an adolescent, she is certainly in the midst of a change—she can’t go back to things as they were with John, but she’s reluctant to begin a new life without him. She’s stymied and stuck, just as Electra is stuck in the doorway of her home, and Vladimir provides an opportunity for her (rightly or wrongly) to act. And even though she’s a mature woman, the circumstances of her situation mixed with the arrival of Vladimir provoke a rush of intoxicating emotions that compromise her judgment, to put it mildly.

Could you describe how you evolved Vladimir from a play to a novel? Considering this particular story, what are the difficulties and benefits of each genre?

The play I was writing was for a cast of two actors (one male and one female) who played many different parts. It consisted of several very long monologues; jumped from location to location; and was more of a riff on ideas of desire and how we own and interpret our own desire rather than a straightforward story. (I believe in an early draft I, Julia May Jonas, was even a character in it!) As sometimes happens with plays, I wrote about seventy pages of it but couldn’t finish it, which is when I know a play is fundamentally not working.

But there was one character in the play who lingered in my mind—a professor whose husband was undergoing a Title IX investigation. When the pandemic struck, and I found that I could not write for theater (it didn’t exist!), I began thinking about this character, and how her story might translate better to fiction. Once I wrote the first chapter, I knew that she could carry a book.

I think the reason this story is better suited to a novel is because it requires the interiority of the narrator. We need to see the inner workings of her mind: how her history, psychology, secret judgments, insecurity, rage, self-justifications, eros, and private humor all bump up against the outside world. A play requires the energy of an audience—collective witnesses experiencing an event in live time. It requires the collaboration of many different artists—actors, designers, directors, all of whom bring their own interpretations to the piece. When a play works, there’s absolutely nothing like it, but it will work because of a communal, and very public, effort.

Our narrator’s story is a private story, however, and it became clear that the transmission needed to be much more personal, direct and intimate—we need to feel like we’re inside this woman’s mind and body, or at the least that she’s whispering in our ear—and that’s what fiction can do best.

How did your experience teaching inform your depictions of academic politics and the dynamic between the narrator and her students?

Working in academia gave me the textural sense of the book, in the same way that (please excuse the comparison) working on a whaling ship gave Herman Melville a textural sense of Moby Dick. The college, characters, and their interaction are all very much invented—I’ve never experienced anything close to a scandal, first, second, or third-hand. But I will say that one insight I had while teaching that I employed in this book is the innate comfort that contemporary students feel with grown-ups or authority figures. I view this as positive. When I was in college I could barely look any of my professors in the eye. I thought of them as gods, who were not to be questioned or criticized (at least to their faces). As a “body” I find students far more diverse in opinion, attitude, and politics than we tend to give them credit for (they’re individuals, after all), so I hesitate to make any blanket statements. But generally they are not as afraid of or in awe of adults in the way I was when I was a student—and I thought about that sense of self-possession and conviction when I wrote the scenes in which they interact with the narrator.

From The Frog Prince to the anti-evolution billboard, animals pop up in subtle ways throughout Vladimir. Is there any greater significance behind those moments?

Yes, I wanted there always to be wildness surrounding the narrator—rustling in the trees, lurking in the woods, pounding at the door, in her peripheral vision, in the signs and in the symbols. Animals are straightforward, they eat when they want, they sleep when they need to, they destroy their prey without compunction. They’re innocent and dangerous and completely unpredictable. And, obviously, we humans are animals, too. Is what propels the narrator an animal instinct? Is it intellectual? When she attempts to release into her animal being, her intellect pulls her back. When she tries to take refuge in her intellect, her more undomesticated impulses force themselves upon her. That dualism—thought versus feeling/human versus animal/the head versus the body—runs through the entire book.

Is there a minor character in Vladimir that is of special interest to you, one that you might have explored further if you had the time or space within the world of the novel? If so, why?

It’s a tricky question because I was so invested in the narrator’s perception that deliberately clouded how she saw the characters, that when I look back I mostly see them through her gaze. So, to cheat, I will say all of them, because I would love to explore their own realities and perceptions and how they differed from our narrators—how they interpreted the scenes and events and conversations. There was a brief moment in the beginning of the writing process when I thought about writing this book from multiple viewpoints. If I had a free year of life, it would be an interesting project to go back and do that with each scene: write it from the opposite perspective.

How do you think grace and shame interact in the context of the narrator’s worldview?

Grace is a lifting out of yourself, shame is burrowing inside yourself. To place your attention fully on someone or something else is an act of grace and release. Shame is placing oneself fully at the center of the story, of the universe. Shame is fixed, grace is fluid. Grace can be faked, and shame is not the same as regret (which is useful), but real grace is the antidote for shame.

Is there a moment, sentence, or section in Vladimir that you find especially beautiful?

The moments that come to mind are with the narrator and Sid—the narrator holding Sid, both soaking wet, by the side of the pool after they’ve fallen, in a “sordid and suburban pieta”, or the moment they’re walking in the woods and Sid touches her and she thinks, “Always the touch of my daughter thrilled me. I still marveled at how cellular the love between a mother and child was—how little I had to think of it, how much I simply felt it.” As the narrator says, her love for Sid is the most unmixed experience and relationship that she’s ever had, and the rare time she experiences grace, to borrow from the above question, is with Sid.

As you were developing and writing Vladimir, did you turn to any other books or media that inspire you? If so, what are they and how did they influence you?

Everything I’m reading, seeing, and watching finds its way into my work as I’m writing, I can’t help that, so it can be hard to pull the threads. And because our narrator is a professor of literature, it allowed me to flagrantly assemble a panoply of literary references. Structurally, I thought a good deal about Iris Murdoch as I was writing, and how she writes these funny yet serious books that start off grounded in her version of psychological realism, and then just when you think you know what kind of book it is, wild things start to happen: characters make extreme choices, and it becomes almost baffling how, well, operatic the plot becomes. (I imagine you can see the connection between this and Vladimir.) I thought a good deal about some American male writers, Updike, Roth, Bellow, and some others (all of whom I love)—particularly the way those books look at women, and did some thinking about how to flip that gaze. When I was in the editing process I focused mainly on the final third of the book, and so I quickly reread the last third of some of my favorite novels that I felt had a kinship with Vladimir: The Sea, The Sea by Murdoch, Cousin Bette by de Balzac, Madame Bovary by Flaubert, Jane Eyre by Brontë, Rebecca by du Maurier, Sula by Morrison, and Laughter in the Dark by Nabokov. I would characterize all these novels as disaster novels, essentially, which is less about what actually happens and more about the feeling you get at the end of them: a kind of flattened desolation, or the Aristotelian sense of catharsis, which I would characterize as a feeling of “there but for the grace of God go I.” I love that tragic feeling, and read the books less for instruction than to let that amazing sense, which all of them conjure so well, to live with me, and potentially rub off on the writing.

If you could guarantee that readers think more deeply about one idea or concept in your book, what would it be and why?

Recently I’ve been thinking about the book as a cautionary tale about the way we construct stories: stories about ourselves, about each other, about society, about our past and future—and how those stories prevent us from accurately seeing other people and the world as it truly is. Every character in Vladimir is guilty of making up a story, or putting on a filter, that obscures the truth of the situation and the reality of the other. The narrator becomes so swept away by her own story (we could call it a fantasy), and the desire to make that story a reality that she crosses a threshold, causing real harm. But all of the characters do this—all humans do this, in fact, and this presupposition can be at best distancing, and at worst, very dangerous.

About The Author

© Adam Sternbergh

Julia May Jonas is a writer and theater director. She has taught theater at Skidmore College and New York University, and lives in Brooklyn with her family. Vladimir is her debut novel.

About The Reader

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (February 1, 2022)
  • Runtime: 9 hours and 40 minutes
  • ISBN13: 9781797137032

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