From the first paragraphs of Vladimir, it’s clear we’re plunging into a campus novel with some darkness to it but also some comedy. At 58, the unnamed narrator is a long-tenured English professor at a small upstate New York college. She should be writing another novel and coasting to retirement. Instead, her husband, John, also an English professor and chair of their department, is being investigated for his past affairs with students, and he’s on leave while he awaits the outcome.
John’s affairs are no secret; long ago, he and the narrator agreed on an open marriage of sorts. Still, she’s angry—at John and pretty much everyone else. “Lightning bolts of anger shot from my vagina to my extremities,” she says, explaining why she’s been avoiding faculty events.
At this moment in the narrator’s life, a new colleague appears: Vladimir Vladinksi, a younger writer with a well-regarded first novel and abs to die for. The narrator is suddenly and completely obsessed, and she concocts a plan to charm and seduce Vlad. Complicating this setup is the narrator’s grown daughter, Sidney, who returns home after a fight with her longtime girlfriend.
Vladimir sweeps us along on a sometimes claustrophobic ride, as the narrator muses on departmental politics, campus “cancel culture” and her uncomfortable perch as a feminist who’s somehow landed on the wrong side of the #MeToo movement. She’s funny, biting and given to bouts of narcissism and self-loathing. As she single-mindedly pursues Vlad, she slowly reveals past and present bad decisions, leading to a shocking climactic scene.
Part dark comedy and part satire, with a dash of the gothic and plenty of literary allusions, Vladimir is a little hard to pin down. But if you imagine the Netflix comedy “The Chair,” whose faculty characters are almost done in by contemporary campus politics, crossed with the acidic love-hate relationship at the heart of Tom Stoppard’s 1962 play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, you wouldn’t be too far off.
Vladimir is Julia May Jonas’ first novel, but she’s also a playwright who teaches at Skidmore College in Saratoga, New York. With her background as a dramatist, she brings notable verve and drama to this sharp campus novel.