Vladimir by Julia May Jones is examines the marital dynamics of a post-menopausal middle aged couple, reveals much about the nature of desire, and casts nuanced judgment on the moral crusading of young people ostensibly upset about on-campus sexual shenanigans. The novel’s protagonist is a woman professor who’s aging and thus losing her powers of attraction. But she still desires others — namely, a male colleague in her department. Meanwhile, she grapples with being the other half of marriage where the man, with her tacit permission, slept around a bit, but now is under fire from ex lovers who allege he abused his power (while she maintains, in her husband’s defense, that it was his power that attracted their naive student souls in the first place). Wonderfully drawn characters throughout.
Some Kindle highlights below:
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.
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.
When I was reading in the library, I was overwhelmed with a mixture of genuine admiration and seething jealousy. The book was funny, clear, awake, vivid. The prose was spare but the voice was not sacrificed in his exact word choice. It felt both like life and beyond life. He was a truly great writer, and though this book, an epigrammatic roman à clef, might not have catapulted him into fame, I had no doubt, reading it, that he would have it all—the bestseller; the interviews; the columns; the articles not only about his writing but about the decoration of his home, his fitness routines, his office, his food consumption, his work habits and sleep habits and opinions on politics.
I felt I knew about the kind of life that involved a begrudging and humorous acceptance of sadness as the invariable state of experience.
Perhaps it was this idea of self-expression and this thought that if we were fully to release this sadness, or if we were to alter it too much—if we were to give up all the obsessions and anxieties that caused us pain—then we would become a kind of person we disdained, someone content with an abstract idea of the littleness of their lives. For our lives were, as writers, essentially little by nature. Writers have to lead little lives, otherwise you can’t find time for writing. Was depression simply a hanging on to grandeur?
I was too happy that we were speaking again to let her annoyance feel like anything other than the feeble blows that daughters lob against their mothers to make sure they’ll still be loved, even at their most peevish.
“Can I sit next to you?” I asked her. In an effort to teach her about the independence of her own body, I had, from the time she was a small child, asked her whenever I wanted to kiss her or lift her up or give her a hug. My mother and sisters had put their hands all over me, I was their little pet to poke and prod at. I didn’t ever want Sidney to feel that way—to feel as though her body belonged to me, or to anyone.
I also wanted to keep my own secrets. It was a pact I held with myself, a game. If I didn’t tell anybody about certain things in my life (notably the things that I would most like to divulge) then, like the men who hold themselves back from orgasm to preserve their life force, I would accumulate some inexplicable strength.
He dressed as an afterthought—I am sure his wife bought shirts and slacks for him in bulk and he accepted them like a prisoner accepts their uniform.
For so long, this was how it felt with John. If he came to me lightheartedly, I would want seriousness. If he came to me gravely, I would feel irritated. If he came to me lovingly, I would react icily. If I came to him in supplication, he would mock me. If I came to him in strength, he would ignore me. We were so pitted against each other. Perhaps because we were so desperate to hang on to our own identities, our own separate I’s. We insisted on living our own lives in our own minds and could never truly merge.
No wonder that I perceived, mostly from their short stories, that my students found nothing more romantic than lusting after a platonic member of their social group.
“I love your clip,” I said. Awkward around most women, I had trained myself to notice something on their person I could compliment. Compliments made you supplicant, equal, and master all at once. Supplicant because you are below, admiring; equal because you have the same taste; and master because you are bestowing your approval. In my life I’ve been wounded more by compliments than I have by insults. (Once when I asked an acquaintance what they thought of my second novel they said, “I can tell you worked so hard on it.”)
She had even, unlined skin and straight white teeth. She had attended the most prestigious writing program in the country, and her work would be better reviewed than mine ever was. She was the survivor of great trauma, she had something to say. I was jealous of every bone in her body, every moment of her history. She was acting wildly, I was jealous of that—jealous of her extremity, the fact that she was drawn to John, for who was the baddest boy on campus right now, who was the ultimate taboo?
As enthralled as I was with Vladimir, he took too much melodramatic ownership over Cynthia’s psychological well-being. He acted as though it were his burden and his alone. I felt umbrage, as a fellow female, that Vlad insisted on bringing up her troubles nearly whenever she was mentioned. It smelled of condescension and a gooey fetishizing of her suffering.
I turned out the lights and lay in the darkness. At first it seemed like real sleep might elude me, but I eventually slid off. The air coming in from the open window was cool, the lake water lapping.
I remembered a fellow cohort in my graduate program all those years ago—male and tall and reasonably attractive—who told me he pursued ugly women because he was fascinated by the grateful way they made love.
Or we could relocate to Mexico, where our dollars would last forever, and live that yellow-dusted expatriate life, wearing linen and hats and crisping in the sun.