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Vladimir

A Novel

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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.

Excerpt

Chapter I I.
Although I had seen and heard Vladimir speak during the master class, the candidates luncheon, and the faculty retreat, I had not had the chance to say more than a few words directly to him until the fall semester. When I first met him, in the spring after he’d been hired as a full-time junior professor, I was coming late to and leaving early from all full-faculty events to avoid having to talk with any of my colleagues. Even sitting three chairs away from Florence was almost too much for me to bear—lightning bolts of anger shot from my vagina to my extremities. I’ve always felt the origin of anger in my vagina and am surprised it is not mentioned more in literature.

On an early September evening, the first week of the semester, he visited me at my home, and that is when we had our first real conversation. I was enjoying the cool breeze in the sitting room of our town house, drinking mineral water—my rule is that if I am alone I do not drink alcohol until 9 p.m. (a practical tactic to keep my weight down)—and reading a history of witches in America, when he rang the bell. Since the allegations had been brought against my husband, I felt unable to read fiction. Usually I eagerly set about a reading project each summer to find at least one or two new short stories or novel excerpts to read with my classes. It was important for them and me to always keep acquainted with the contemporary voice. This summer, however, my eyes felt as though they could not focus on the words. The invented worlds, all the made-up-ness and stolen-ness of fiction, all the characters—they felt like a meager and pitiful offering. I needed dates, facts, numbers, and statistics. Weapons. This is our world and this is what happened in it. In the first class of my survey courses I was accustomed to reading a section of Poetics aloud. In it Aristotle discusses the difference between history and poetry and why poetry, being crafted and theoretical, is a superior representation of humanity. This year I skipped it. This year I skipped my whole introductory lecture—usually a litany of references and quotations that I prepped and practiced for well in advance—designed to cow and delight my students. This year, instead, I asked them to speak about themselves and their experiences. While I wish I could say that this decision came from a desire to get to know them, it did not. On my notes for the class I wrote: “Have them talk! (They’re only interested in what they think, anyway.)”

I heard a car pull into the drive, and then listened for a while as someone paced around the property, wondering which door to approach. In our town, there’s a general custom of entering through the back porch, which, if the house has not been completely remodeled, opens to the kitchen, from a time when in-house help was more prevalent, and domestic labor less of a performance displaying taste, choice, and skill.

Vladimir, however, being new, rang the entrance at the front of the house—which opened to a cold little corridor that we used only as a pass-through to the upstairs. When I opened the door he stood spotlit by the porch light, and immediately put his free hand in his pocket, as though he had been adjusting his hair. He seemed abashed. I remembered my thirties, as a young mother, meeting young fathers, talking about where their sons or daughters were going to elementary school, or whether they were going to try out karate, and how thrilled it made me to see them adjusting their hair or clothing subconsciously: a nervous nod to the powers of attraction I possessed at the time.

He held a bottle of red wine in his other hand and a book tucked into his armpit. When I opened the door he awkwardly switched the two—moving the wine underneath his opposite arm, so it lay against his side like a violin at rest. He wore a knit tie with an engraved tie bar over a checked shirt with rolled-up sleeves, well-cut pants, and good-quality leather boots with thick white soles. Clearly a transplant from the city—no heterosexual man who’d spent much time here would look like that. Even my husband, a vain man with a taste for expensive Irish knit sweaters, had forgotten the specificity and light irony of urban style. My husband wore what he wore because he believed in it—he had lost the sense of costuming and presentation that well-dressed city dwellers naturally possessed. That perambulating sense of always being on display.

Vladimir held out the slim book, chalkboard green with sans serif lettering. “I was going to say I was in the neighborhood but I wasn’t—I came from the college—I wanted to give—John and I had spoken earlier—I wanted to bring him—and you, you—this.

“And this,” he said, holding up the wine. “I wouldn’t presume that bringing only my book was enough to justify a visit.”

I ignored the wine and put on my act of matronly fandom that these days I used more and more with my students and the young people around me. My Big Mom Energy, as they say. “negligible generalities by Vladimir Vladinski,” I read. “Your book. I’m so excited, please come in.”

After some negotiation with the clunky door that involved his tie being caught, he followed me into the sitting room. As I led him though the corridor, I grabbed a pashmina to wrap around my neck. I prefer to conceal my neck.

“John is out, actually, but can I invite you to have a drink with me? Since you weren’t in the neighborhood?”

He agreed after looking at his watch, a gesture to let me know his time was limited.

“Come with me to the kitchen. You can have your wine or beer or a martini.”

I am naturally a busy host, and I like busy hosts, though some do not. When someone comes into my house, for a good portion of time I do not stop moving—tidying, making coffee, cleaning. My mother never sat still unless she was reading, typing, paying bills, or asleep, and I share this quality. When I go into someone’s house and they are doing many chores, and their attention is divided, and they are packing a suitcase or mopping their floors while I linger about, I feel distinctly at ease. I have always liked the feeling of hanging around, and a host who gives me too much of their attention makes me feel unnerved.

When I had a little affair, back in the city, when I was an all-but-dissertation TA, it was with a very slow-moving young man who made intense and lasting eye contact. He was in my section of the Women in Literature seminar, and his gaze upon me, when he would offer a thought about Woolf or Eliot or Aphra Behn, felt so penetrating and impertinent I didn’t know how to take it. I thought it was funny at the beginning, a kind of affectation. As he spent more and more time in my office I became addicted to the eye contact and would try to blink as slowly as possible when we were speaking, so that I could get a sense of leaving and coming back to that warm bath of his ocular attention. When we finally consummated our flirtation, I was devastated to find (though I shouldn’t have been surprised) that he could not maintain this communication while making love and turned as screwed-eyed and internal as any other twenty-one-year-old boy. (Lest you be too horrified, I was only twenty-eight.) Once the affair dissolved, I started to find his eye contact irritating, then enraging, and finally simply cow-eyed and insipid. I had to move through all these points of perception. He is “in business” now, and Republican, I think.

“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.”

He assured me that was fine, lovely, how he liked them. I opened the bottom cupboard to stand on its ledge so I could reach the glasses on a higher shelf. I am a short woman. This anatomical fact feels at odds with my personality. All my adult life, people, when they find out my height, marvel that I am only five foot three inches tall. They think me to be at least five foot six or even seven. In pictures I am often surprised to see how little I am in comparison to my husband. In my mind, he and I are the same.

I pulled the glasses out of the cupboard. I felt as though Vladimir was standing very close to me, and in fact, when I turned around to hand him the glasses I almost placed them on his chest.

“Sorry,” we both said.

“Jinx,” I said.

When the drinks were fixed, I led him out to the living room. He sat on the loveseat across from me and spread out in an appealingly masculine way, with a big, wide cross of one leg over the other, ankle to knee. He told me that he had a young child at home, three years old (Philomena, but they called her Phee), and that his wife (a person of great fascination to the department who would be teaching a memoir-writing class for us, a beautiful woman I had seen at faculty events but not yet spoken to) was not adjusting well to the change to the country from the city. He asked where my husband was and seemed surprised when I told him that he was out getting a drink with a former student.

“A student?”

I clarified that it was a male student, which relaxed him.

My husband, John, is the chair of our small English Department in our small upstate New York college, population less than 2,200 students. At the start of the spring semester (last January), our department was handed a petition, with more than three hundred signatures, requesting his removal. Attached to the petition were affidavits by seven women, now of various ages, former students at the college, who, over the course of his twenty-eight years of teaching here, had engaged with him sexually. None, mind you, in the past five years, after teacher/student relationships were explicitly banned. At one point we would have called these affairs consensual, for they were, and were conducted with my vague 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. Whatever the current state of my marriage may be, I still can’t think about it all without my blood boiling. My anger is not so much directed toward the accusations as it is toward the lack of self-regard these women have—the lack of their own confidence. I wish they could see themselves not as little leaves swirled around by the wind of a world that does not belong to them, but as powerful, sexual women interested in engaging in a little bit of danger, a little bit of taboo, a little bit of fun. With the general, highly objectionable move toward a populist insistence of morality in art, I find this post hoc prudery offensive, as a fellow female. I am depressed that they feel so guilty about their encounters with my husband that they have decided he was taking advantage of them. I want to throw them all a Slut Walk and let them know that when they’re sad, it’s probably not because of the sex they had, and more because they spend too much time on the internet, wondering what people think of them.

Vladimir Vladinski, the young, new professor, who I imagined would work his way up to chair of the department in his tenure, if he receives tenure (which he will, given his adroitness, his literary reputation, his youth, his clear ambition), looked around my living room. I followed his eyes as they rested on the marquee-sized poster of Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, bought as part of a Film Forum fundraiser when they were liquidating their poster stock, and the series of framed prints from the homes of great American writers, put together after the cross-country adventure we took when my daughter, Sidney, was eight, and we mapped the trip by visiting the hometowns of important American novelists, from Hemingway to Faulkner to O’Connor to Morrison to Wright to Cather to Didion in Los Angeles. To his left, on the wall, backed and hung, were our brochures of the Dostoevsky museum, the Tolstoy museum, and the Turgenev museum from our trip to Russia. On the shelf below the coffee table, piled high, were the programs of the theater we’d seen in our yearly week in New York City. There was nearly an entire wall devoted to representations of Don Quixote, and a large map of Spain, upon which his journey was tracked with pins and coasters from cafés in those towns. A shrine to our far-flung travel stood in a corner of the room, a collection that included an authentic Noh theater Shiite mask, several little statues purchased in the Ariaria Market in Nigeria, Norwegian-carved bookends, a Swedish antique coffeepot, a sitar from India, and a Moroccan wall hanging.

“Your house is amazing,” he said, picking up a program of Frida Kahlo’s home in Mexico and turning it over in his hands.

“Well, it’s a document. Of time passed and things seen.” I carefully set my martini down on the antique ashtray stand we used as a drink table. “Sometimes I look at it as a life well-lived. Sometimes I want to burn it all to the ground and become a minimalist.”

He shook his head. “But this is the best kind of clutter—this looks like a museum—it’s not chain store junk, plastic containers, remote controls.”

“Those are more hidden. I have my bags of bags of bags. But does one always want to be surrounded by so much culture? There’s something exhausting about being constantly bombarded by everyone’s best efforts,” I said.

“I don’t believe you think that. If you’re exhausted by that, you wouldn’t be able to survive academia,” he said. He was, to my great delight, sparring with me.

“Well, who says I have?” I raised my eyebrows and pursed my lips in what I hoped looked like a knowing nod at the Human Comedy.

He took a large drink from his glass and spilled several drops on his chinos, right at the tip of the crotch of his pants that stretched tight like a trampoline between his crossed legs. “I’m surprised he’s allowed out.”

He looked toward the window, black and reflective with the night behind it. From the angle we were both sitting, we could see each other in the reflection, but not ourselves. Without trying, we caught each other’s gaze. We each smiled, close-lipped, shyly. He averted his eyes.

In the days and nights that followed, it was that image of him in the black glass of the window that haunted and warmed me. His arm extended across the sofa cushion, the cross of his leg revealing the stripe of his sock, his head turned over his shoulder, the gesture of his eyes casting down, like an old-fashioned stage actress looking bashfully at a bouquet.

I usually demurred from frankly addressing details about my marriage, and I sometimes wonder why I chose to be so forthright with Vladimir Vladinski, experimental novelist and junior professor of literature at our small college. But of course I immediately answer myself. I wanted to be intimate with him, so deeply intimate, from that moment 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.

And so I divulged everything. How my husband and I had a tacit agreement that we would be as sexually free as we liked during our marriage. No asking, no telling, mostly communicated through off-handed comments and nods. We didn’t discuss it, good lord, who wanted to take the time to discuss such things? Embarrassing, pedestrian, and truly, not our style. I enjoyed the idea of his virility, and I enjoyed the space that his affairs gave me. I was a professor of literature, a mother to Sidney, and a writer. What did I want with a husband who wanted my attention? I wanted to avoid, and I wanted to be avoided. As to the age of the women, I felt too connected to my experience of myself when I was in college to protest. When I was in college, the lust I felt for my professors was overwhelming. It did not matter if they were men or women, attractive or unattractive, brilliant or average, I desired them deeply. I desired them because I thought they had the power to tell me about myself. If I had a shred of brazenness, or even confidence, at the time, I’m sure I would have walked into one of their offices and thrown myself at them. I did not. But if one of them had whistled, I surely would have come running.

And my husband was weak. He wanted to be desired, he lived off it, it was his sunlight and water and oxygen. And every fall a new, fresh group of young and fervent women flooded in, their skin more luminous and beautiful each year, especially in comparison to our own, which seemed to fade and chap the longer we stayed in that upstate town that was cold from October through June.

In my twenties and thirties I had my affairs too. There was the one with the student that I mentioned (though he was the only student—I found that even at the age of twenty-eight I was self-conscious about the aging of my body in comparison to the young, springy women that my young lover would have been most intimately familiar with), and there were men from the area—Thomas, the contractor who renovated our upstairs bath; Robert, a professor from the business department; and Boris, a painter who lived several towns away who hosted me in his large converted barn/studio space (the most cinematic).

Toward the end of my thirties I made the mistake of mingling with someone in my department. It ended badly, with tears and threats and phone calls with hang-ups and hurt feelings. My daughter was nine, and increasingly aware of the world around her. It was complicated and exhausting. I decided to embrace abstinence, to pull myself from the game. I would focus on my work, my home, my writing. The distraction of my colleague, as intriguing as it was, had made me feel ridiculous and undignified; desperate, weak, and grasping. I would pursue dignity, elegance, erudition. I abandoned lust and desire. I authored several essays on form and structure. I published my second novel.

After I told Vlad all this, he looked pained. I think he had expected me to protest that my husband was innocent, that it was some sort of campaign to besmirch his name—to rid the college of the old white men, that sort of thing. He emptied his martini in a few minutes.

He sucked on an olive pit as he asked me questions. “So you knew that your husband had multiple affairs with students?”

I widened my eyes to prevent them from visibly rolling. “Multiple affairs. What silly wording. He fucked them, and they fucked him. He fucked their shining skin and their panties got wet from his approval. They liked it and he couldn’t help it.”

He winced. Prude. “Couldn’t help it. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe it’s possible to simply fall.”

“What, in love?” I asked. “Or in lust?”

“Both. There’s always a part of you that you let go slack. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.”

He was red in the face, and perturbed. He reminded me of some New England preacher from the nineteenth century—a transcendentalist Unitarian with strict principles. He seemed vegan. I liked it. I liked his arrogant anger.

I folded my hands in my lap. “I feel like I’ve upset you.”

“It doesn’t matter.” He looked like a perturbed teenager. (Not Fair!) “It’s why you should never admire people. They’ll only disappoint you.”

“You can still admire my husband without condoning what he did,” I said. Though it’s not up to you to condone, I thought.

“I wish I could. Maybe I can. I’m sorry. I didn’t eat enough before I drank this.”

We changed subjects after that—we talked about a new novel that had come out from a substantial writer, a play we had both seen in New York and whether it was a feminist retelling of a classic work or patriarchal pandering. I pressed some cheese and bread on him, and some water. We spoke about the differences between the sophomore and junior classes (the juniors were dim, the sophomores were keen). I told him, to the best of my memory, about child-friendly activities in the area for his three-year-old.

We parted in the pitch-black darkness. I let him know once more how much I looked forward to reading his book. He seemed remiss when he said goodbye and told me he “really would” love to hear what both of us thought, especially me. After his car pulled from the drive, I sat out back in a Muskoka chair on the side of our pool. I leaned my head back and looked at the stars. I had a craving for a cigarette, though I hadn’t had one for twenty years. I felt a growing excitement and wildness creep up into my nervous system—a prickly awareness that started in my bones and radiated outward. I thought of Vladimir Vladinski using his large, rough hands to hold my hair back from my face. On the far side of our property, behind the chain-link fence that enclosed the yard, the eyes of a stray cat or a fox reflected the porch light. They glowed like the eyes of a demon.

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.

Introduction

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.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster (January 31, 2023)
  • Length: 272 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982187644

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Raves and Reviews

“Delightful…a witty dance with the ghost of Nabokov and a razor-edged commentary on academia at our current fraught moment...by turns, cathartic, devious and terrifically entertaining.” Jean Hanff Korelitz, The New York Times

"A virtuoso debut...our unnamed narrator [is] so witty, sharp and seductive that, as a reader, I was pretty much putty in her hands." —Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air

Vladimir goes into such outrageous territory that my jaw literally dropped at moments while I was reading it. There’s a rare blend here of depth of character, mesmerizing prose, and fast-paced action.” Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe

“Jonas, with a potent, pumping voice, has drawn a character so powerfully candid that when she does things that are malicious, dangerous and, yes, predatory, we only want her to do them again.” —Jessica Ferri, Los Angeles Times

"A deliciously dark fable of sex and power... Earmark an entire afternoon to devour this propulsive story of obsession, scandal, and transgressive desire." Esquire

If Netflix’s The Chair, Lisa Taddeo’s best-seller Three Women, and the most compelling passages of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Death in Her Hands had a love child (just go with me here), it would be this fiction debut. With a title character who’s a sought-after young novelist new to a college faculty, Vladimir leaves the reader with more questions than answers—about sex, and sexual politics—in the most delicious way. Entertainment Weekly

"Jonas’s narrator is a work of art in herself." The Washington Post

“Timely, whip-smart, and darkly funny.” People (Book of the Week)

“[Vladimir] soldiers into charged territory... with an unreliable and at times almost defiantly unlikable narrator at the helm. This woman is no joke. She’s ravenous—for rich and indulgent meals, big sloshing glasses of wine and sneaked cigarettes... In taking this older woman's desire deadly seriously, Vladimir proves seductively subversive." USA Today

"Funny, wise and instantly engaging, Vladimir is how I like my thrill rides: brainy and sexy." —Maria Semple, author of Where'd You Go Bernadette

"Outrageously fun... Jonas unravels a taut and bold narrative about power, ambition, and female desire." Time

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