the principle of perception.
I picked up Vladimir by Julia May Jonas on a recommendation from another writer whose literary tastes align closely with my own. I hadn’t seen the cover around anywhere and was delighted by the tongue-in-cheek, Danielle Steele-esque design. Initially, based on the title and backmatter, I imagined it would be a gender reversal of Lolita, but it wound up being more interesting than that.
A fifty-something, unnamed female professor is enmeshed in a scandal at her university where her English department chair husband has been accused of sexual harassment and now awaits a dismissal hearing. They’ve always lived separate lives and she is resentful to find herself thrust into the hot seat alongside him by her students and peers. As the novel progresses, the narrator lays bare her own biases and doubts and this expands outward into an in-depth character study.
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.
Enter Vladimir, the sexy young adjunct professor with the beautiful wife and charming child who becomes our narrator’s muse as she makes an attempt to write a third novel amid the wreckage. As her obsession for him grows, her need to prove she is still desirable as a woman parallels an increasing self-consciousness.
Vanity has always been my poorest quality. I hate it in myself, and yet am as plagued with it as I am with needing to sleep or eat or breathe.
The narrator spends much of the book seeking outward approval from her students, her daughter, the other professors, and, of course, Vladimir.
It is this obsession with perception that led me to connect Vladimir with the next novel I read, quite coincidentally, White on White by Aysegul Savas.
White on White explores the duality of identity, the mask one wears for the world, and the performance of perception. The, again unnamed, female narrator is mostly a silent observer of both people and art, about which there are many philosophical and artistic asides accompanied by little plot action. It reminded me structurally of Rachel Cusk’s Outline, with the narrator acting primarily as a sieve through which conversations are filtered.
The narrator is a Ph.D. candidate who has come to a city to study Gothic nudes and finds herself unexpected roommates with her landlady who owns the painter’s studio upstairs. Her landlady, Agnes, is older, meticulously dressed, and particular with the manner and appearance she presents to the world.
She may have been on her way to the opera or the bookshop and would have been comfortable in either place.
Agnes speaks often of her painting, how she must sit silently in order to access the state of mind necessary to create. However, very little painting is ever done and the studio lies barren. Eventually, Agnes’s insecurities are revealed piecemeal as she draws the narrator further in with her meandering stories about her past, her children, her husband. The narrator listens patiently, reminds herself the rent is cheap, and she’s lauded by Agnes for being patient. Eventually though, it becomes clear Agnes wants more.
She had an urge to cause harm whenever she noticed people acting insincerely.
Vanity and appearance play an important role in both books and then there is the inevitable dropping of the mask that marks a personal catastrophe. I enjoyed both books immensely and hope to read more from both Savas and Jonas soon.
I thought I’d spend this year reading my own backlist titles, but I went to Independent Bookstore Day and really celebrated, so more updates to come.
Some of my own writer’s notes:
The Drowned Woman is releasing this week and I have a lot of feelings about it. I’ve signed and shipped preorders, people are sending me pictures of my book in stores, I’ve solidified a small but mighty book tour and will be signing at the Bay Area Book Fest this weekend! I also have a virtual event taking place on May 25th with a custom cocktail pairing + drink making demo + giveaway — if you’d like to celebrate with us, you can sign up here: https://bit.ly/booktailhappyhour
Additionally, I have an author interview that went up at LitSeen yesterday — check it out, particularly if you’re interested in learning about my favorite smells and watching a five minute video reading of The Drowned Woman. Then another interview that went up Tuesday on Hayden’s Ferry Review which is more about The Drowned Woman and craft and my thoughts on art and motherhood in writing. Thanks for reading in advance!