Book Reviews: Vladimir by Julia May Jonas and Either/Or by Elif Batuman

vladimir by Julia May Jonas is out now (Pan Macmillan, £14.99)

As often in the new school of provocative contemporary literature, the protagonist of Julia May’s novel Jonas vladimir never has a name. We know she’s a woman, we know she’s middle-aged, and we know she’s married to a man with a lot of problems. It seems that her husband, John, had a questionable relationship with his students a few years ago. Our protagonist knows it, she doesn’t care. Fast forward to the #MeToo era and stories of John’s extramarital endeavors are uncovered at the liberal arts college where the couple work. Ultra-liberal students are outraged and wonder how our protagonist could possibly support her evil husband. But his mind is elsewhere. All she can think about is Vladimir, the sexy young novelist who has recently joined the English department, and what she must do to get his pants off.

vladimir is essentially two novels in one. There’s the novel about John, his affairs and their aftermath, and there’s the novel about our protagonist’s obsession and pursuit of Vladimir. I can’t help but wish Jonas had picked one. While both storylines are well executed and overall the novel is enjoyable and often hilarious, there is just a sad lack of skill that would have made vladimir work successfully. This is best summed up by the novel’s grand finale – it really does feel like the author had a bigger place, so he wrote up a pretty nonsensical ending, stapled it to the manuscript, and ran out the door .

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vladimir is one of those novels that I would recommend to people provided it doesn’t always work out but is still good enough. Jonas deserves credit for overcoming his own shortcomings by being consistently funny and refreshingly provocative. As a start, vladimir leaves me curious enough to know what Jonas will produce next.

Either/Or by Elif Batuman is out now (Vintage, £16.99)

Despite being one of the best novels of the 2010s, Pulitzer Prize finalist and Woman’s Fiction Award shortlist, Elif Batuman’s the idiot was as divisive as it was praised. It was a largely plotless adventure that followed Selin as she pursued a hopeless relationship while studying linguistics at Harvard. Whether or is a direct sequel to the idiot. Those who appreciated the meditative style of Batuman’s prose in the idiot – how she often went off on multi-page tangents about literature, art or television – are in luck, Whether or is basically an entire novel of that. If you hated those parts, well, that will be your personal hell.

This is Selin’s second year at Harvard and much of it is spent trying to come to terms with the events of the idiot. In order to make sense of things, Selin dives into her books. She looks at Kierkegaard, André Breton, Samantha de sex and the city, maybe the answers lie there. But, as she must have learned before, there are things in life that are simply not found in Proust.

In most cases, accusing an author of having written the same novel twice would be considered criticism; in the case of Whether or it’s music to this reader’s ears. Batuman took what made the idiot so brilliant, distilled it and created an equally brilliant new work. Whether or is unbridled joy.

Alycia R. Lindley