At the opening of this arresting debut, the narrator, an unnamed English literature professor in her late 50s, is gazing at a beautiful colleague, Vladimir. Almost two decades her junior, he is asleep in a chair. “The sight of his arm hair, ablaze in the sun, sends a sob down my spine,” she notes. The arm, it seems, is “the one that I have not shackled” – Vladimir is tied to the chair.
The narrator then goes back to explore how she got to this point, unpicking the complexities and generational tensions around assault in an American university, the power play between professor and student, the tangles of desire and envy, defiance and shame, ambition and failure. Above all, though, Vladimir is a novel about female appetite – for sex, food, power, success – and what the ageing process does to it.
The narrator’s husband, John, the chair of the English department, has been suspended while the authorities investigate his past misdemeanours – he had sex with his students before regulations outlawed such behaviour. Although the narrator is struggling to distance herself from this scandal, she considers the whole thing a bit ridiculous. Theirs has long been an open marriage, and his dalliances were all “consensual”; he didn’t “drug them or coerce them”. Young women today, she notes scathingly, seem to have “lost all agency”, believing themselves to be victims when they plainly aren’t. Despite her disdain, she courts her students’ approval, designing courses to “cow and delight” them (her motto: “Kill them with care”). But in the politicised environment of a campus, the “students rule the roost” and when they grow agitated, demanding to know why she hasn’t left John, she is forced to kowtow.
Julia May Jonas explores how sexual desire, rage and creativity can become destructively entangled. The narrator is furious with her husband on a visceral level: she shudders when he touches her, and as the hearings start to dismantle his career and reputation, she focuses, obsessively, on the gorgeous new junior professor, Vladimir. At 40, Vladimir is a talented debut novelist with a glamorous, unstable wife and young daughter. She notes his literary talents with envy. Early in her career she produced two novels, one well received, one not, and has written nothing since. In fact, she has funnelled considerable energy into minimising her literary ambitions, convincing herself that she must model for her now adult daughter, Sid, the notion that happiness lies in curtailing the desire for success. She presents her child as a triumph: stable, functional, a non-profit lawyer living in the city with her lovely girlfriend. However, when Sid appears late one night, fresh off a train, smashed on rum, it seems that this may not be the case.
Approaching 60, the narrator is acutely aware that she is no longer a sexual object. Now, though, it is her turn to look, not just with lust at Vladimir’s body, but with envy at the bodies of younger women – her students, Vladimir’s wife. She also turns this bitter gaze on herself. She has always been “vain”, but now she monitors every wrinkle and mark, dressing meticulously, fiercely controlling her weight. This self-scrutiny is brutal. When she invites Vladimir to swim in her pool, she prepares with an anti-cellulite massage and a spray tan, but even then cannot bear the idea of being looked at. Unable to express herself physically, her pent-up sexual desire erupts on the page, and she begins to write again, feverishly. She simultaneously channels her considerable intellectual and manipulative skills into trapping Vladimir. Having fallen instantly for his beauty, she seduces him with intellectual flattery, attention, food and alcohol – lots of it: martinis “dirty, and wet”, bottles of Sancerre, gin and tonics, Manhattans. It is slow, deliberate, decisive and, we know, will lead to the point where she has him shackled to that chair. The question is, how, and why – and will she hurt him?
The opening sentence of Vladimir raises a distinctly Nabokovian ghost (“When I was a child, I loved old men, and I could tell that they also loved me”). There are faint nods to Pnin in the campus setting, with Vladimir the academic, but also perhaps in the novel’s other themes: failure, humiliation, isolation, loss. These are the spooks that haunt the narrator’s chilly, bookish mind: the shame of growing irrelevant, invisible, unwanted and undesirable.
Vladimir is a quietly captivating novel. Jonas’s voice is so assured, in fact, that for most of the time it seems astonishing that this is a debut. The confidence wavers towards the end, though, with a heavy-handed denouement: an unsuccessful attempt to tame the complex themes, and pin down this slippery and uncomfortably compelling narrator. The wobbly ending is disappointing – the narrator is oddly neutered by it – but perhaps this is a price worth paying for what is otherwise an engrossing and clever debut.
• Vladimir is published by Picador (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.