“I ask this one thing:/let me go mad in my own way,” opens the epigraph – taken from Sophocles’s Antigone – of Julia May Jonas’s debut novel. It unfolds in the wake of seven allegations of sexual misconduct against a female academic’s husband, John (another professor at the same college), triggering, in turn, a slew of student signatures calling for his removal. The supposed “madness” of the novel lies not only in the whipped-up condemnation of John, but in the narrator’s slippery descent into her own murky infatuation.
The arrival of debut author Vladimir, a suave, second-generation Russian, “clearly a transplant from the city”, as a professor amid this wreckage spells further disaster for the unnamed narrator, whose wry and shrewd voice steers this novel. Creating a quartet of entanglements, Vladimir brings wife Cynthia (and young daughter) in tow, whose deep, unexplained trauma and “honourable depression” elevates her in our narrator’s eyes.
While privately confessing to her husband’s flings with students – and her own indifference (“power is the reason they desired him in the first place”) – the protagonist first feels a spark between herself and Vladimir. Fifty-eight years old and railing against her perceived loss of sexual power, the narrator’s desire for a father in his 40s plummets her into “a pit, with no bottom”. Rapt with longing and inspiration, she resumes her dormant, so far unsuccessful work as a novelist and, in a sardonic subversion of the male author and his muse, becomes “engorged with the creative juice”.
Jonas portrays a world in which women, despite attempts to unshackle themselves, trip into knotty and constricting gender norms
Vladimir is peppered with subversions of this kind, from the narrator’s early assertion that “perhaps I am an old man more than I am an oldish white woman”, since she is compelled by desire, to the introduction of her adult, androgynous, bisexual daughter Sid, emancipated from “the heterosexual prison”. Yet Jonas portrays a world in which women, despite attempts to unshackle themselves, trip into knotty and constricting gender norms: though priding herself on an “unconventional” marriage, the narrator is engulfed by domestic labour, while it is her own body, not Vladimir’s, and its faults with which she is preoccupied (the “lines in places I had yet to realise”, breasts “more comical than globular, and which now, on a bad day, looked nearly phallic”). Jonas, a playwright, artfully fashions a protagonist mired in contradictions that stack up as the narrative progresses.
The novel is hemmed in by its central questions: the narrator’s complicity in her husband’s affairs, having initially “suggested to John that he seek out other women” (a late symptom of the free love movement that now backfires), as well as how consensual these relationships were. Arguments of female agency, sex positivity and what constitutes true trauma are wrung dry – it is the topic of female pain and its fetishisation in art, however, which Jonas illuminates. Among the novel’s most disturbing passages are the narrator’s recollected encounters with predatory professors and family friends, dismissed as little more than embarrassing.
With its fervent “embrace” of “the I I I”, its understated mundanity and poised restraint, Jonas’s debut joins a swath of authors with nameless protagonists, among them Rachel Cusk and Amina Cain, and their interrogation of the female canon. There’s a moroseness in the vein of Ottessa Moshfegh and Lisa Taddeo with which Vladimir dissects the boomer-millennial generational divide, shifting sexual politics and the changing constraints on language used by women – though what lets this intelligent, knowing portrayal of a woman’s spiralling midlife crisis down is that the questions it seeks to answer are not as morally dubious as it seems to claim. The much-overstated 15-year age gap between Vladimir and the narrator is characteristic of the novel’s concern about age-related power dynamics; Vladimir is snagged on whether the assumption that young women cannot consent to relationships with older men is anti-feminist, though its stilted attempt to give the title of victim or oppressor to each is where the novel loses its footing.
• Vladimir by Julia May Jonas is published by Picador (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply