“Vladimir” by Julia May Jonas
review by MEREDITH MCKINNIE
“And what was I to say? Most days, these days, I didn’t feel as though I loved him. Most days I thought of him as a problem I would have to solve eventually, when I felt like making the effort.”
I hesitate to review novels set in the world of academia, a landscape fraught with mystery and steeped in tradition. As a career resident of this world since graduate school, the inner workings inform my reading in a way that would evade most readers. Nonetheless, I felt this one worthy of an opinion, simply because of the drastic narrative turns and its frank discussion of sexual power in the wake of generational differences. Jonas pulls back the curtain of this relatively small liberal arts institution in upstate New York, where an unnamed narrator and her husband John both sit in the security of academic tenure. The 58-year-old female struggles with body image and self perception, regardless of a confessed devout belief in feminism that demands one shirk such trivial concerns. Quite popular on campus, her world is rocked by a bevy of accusations against her husband from decades before. The female’s reaction is stunning in its dismissal, as she asserts the women were of legal age and the couple enjoyed an open relationship. She resents the victimhood mentality of the MeToo movement – not exactly feminist forward.
John and the narrator have morphed into roommates, easing through the third decade of a marriage of convenience, where familiarity replaces sexual desire. The woman is aware of the lines on her face, the cellulite accumulating on her upper thighs, and she is intent on remaining sexually appealing despite being post-menopausal. When new tenure track hire and successful novelist Vladimir Vladinski lands on campus with a gorgeous young wife and baby in tow, the narrator is struck with a latent sexual desire amplified by a need for vengeance against a husband whose dalliances threaten her job security and reputation. What develops is a battle of who will turn the world upside down first.
Jonas writes with confident awareness, lingering in the narrator’s head, knowing this playground is as alluring as the insidious plot lines. The novel possesses bite, even more intensified when the plot takes a glaring turn and yet settles in an ending signifying the generational division flirted with throughout the novel. Here is one of those books where someone else’s opinion could disrupt mine, as the dust has yet to settle.
“He was happy, I could tell. Happy to be free, happy to be a genius, happy to be a beautiful man with his elbow out the open window, squinting at the sun in the October afternoon.”