On The Lost Daughter, Vladimir, and What Happens When Women Have Had Enough
Miranda Beverly-Whittemore Investigates the Intersection
of Motherhood and Art
Early in Julia May Jonas’s searing debut novel Vladimir, the unnamed narrator, an “oldish white woman in her late fifties (the identity I am burdened with publicly presenting, to my general embarrassment)” finds herself in the last place anyone wants to be—a faculty meeting of a small New England college. She teaches in the same English Department where her husband, John, is the chair; he has been put on leave for past affairs with students. The narrator finds herself near one of the colleagues pushing to get John fired, and “lightning bolts of anger shot from my vagina to my extremities. I’ve always felt the origin of anger in my vagina and I’m surprised it is not mentioned more in literature.”
This character, at this particular moment of my life, has become a welcome friend. She helps me understand that there is rage in my vagina too, the door through which my babies entered this world. Like all mothers I know, nearly two years into this pandemic, I spend my days isolated in a near-constant state of exhaustion, fury and despair.
Soon after the faculty meeting, when Vladimir’s narrator’s colleagues ask her to take her own leave of absence, because the students find her very presence, as John’s wife, “to be objectionable,” we understand that this is an inevitable injustice, and also that she will not go quietly. The question is presented: what happens when a woman decides she has had enough?
Vladimir shares thematic DNA with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s raw directorial debut The Lost Daughter, which has recently created a small industry of think pieces by mothers drowning in the sea of their families. I read the Ferrante novel it’s based on when our middle schooler was a toddler and I thought my life was challenging (ha!), but I love the film even more, thirsty, as my isolated self is, for the company of women’s faces. I spent the film on the edge of my seat, less concerned about what might happen to Leda, in her middle age, on a “working vacation” in a Greek beach town, than how she, like the narrator of Vladimir, might go about causing harm, especially to herself—all the while feeling a shimmer of self-recognition.
Leda is played by two actors. Jessie Buckley is “Young Leda,” a mother of two, “suffocating” (as she describes it) while trying to carve out a life of the mind as a scholar of comparative literature. Her daughters are ever ready to consume her, and her own academic husband puts his career first, despite her ambitions and talent. (As Vladimir’s narrator puts it: “In pictures I am often surprised to see how little I am in comparison to my husband. In my mind, he and I are the same.”)
Like Vladimir’s narrator, Young Leda is an unequivocally wonderful mother when she focuses on it; passionate, adoring, and unable to put anything above her girls. And that, we learn—spoilers ahead—is precisely why she ends up abandoning her family; there is no room inside it for who she wants to be. The Leda we meet decades later, played by the electric Olivia Colman, is the product of that choice; watchful, wary, fierce, and a little unhinged. Asked what it was like to leave her girls, she replies: “It felt amazing. It felt like I’d been trying not to explode and then I exploded.”
Vladimir’s narrator describes herself as “the most selfish human being I know,” and the older Leda describes herself as “an unnatural mother,” but I can’t help thinking these reductive self-descriptions are coded ways to offer solutions to the state of being in which nearly every family woman I know currently exists. By claiming their failures, these women are able to release themselves from what the world expects of them. It is breathtaking, to imagine walking out the door with no intention of coming back. When I say that, I mean it literally takes my breath away, as though the lungs have been cut out of me. But it is a choice I can’t help but understand for any mother who might make it, especially after these past two years—self-liberation.
If Leda and our narrator abandon their nuclear families, what do they embrace? Early in Vladimir, our narrator takes her daughter out for breakfast, leaving behind half of a wan Greek omelet (in a constant war with her weight, she is on a diet). But the night her colleagues ask her to leave, she stops by the market for “dark black kale and designer anchovies and a nineteen-dollar brick of parmesan and olives and seeded crackers and an uncut boule of whole wheat sourdough and goat cheese and salami and raspberries and flourless chocolate ganache torte.”
She consumes this food “like a beast, ripping chunks of flesh with my teeth, stabbing enormous forkfuls of the salad into my mouth and letting the oil smear all over my face, shoveling crackers and cheese, alternating my red wine with my martini to wash everything down.” As the façade of her well-ordered life shatters, she not only discovers she is ravenous; she finally lets herself eat.
She similarly opens herself to sexual desire, leaning into her obsession with a muscular, married colleague, the titular Vladimir. She is embarrassed by her attraction to this younger man: “Older women with lust are always the butt of the joke in comedy, horny sagging birds with dripping skin.” And yet this lust calls up a part of herself from which she’s long felt distant: the writer. Stripped bare, she embraces the gorgeous impulse of her own mind: “The writing felt like what I imagined skiing the slalom felt like to an accomplished skier, just the right amount of exertion and planning and foresight, the rest of it easy grace… [It] was an act of evocation, of conjuring. It gave me shivers of pleasure.”
I long for this feeling. You might say I hunger for it. When I’m not getting my children through this wretched time, I write books. My husband is a massage therapist, and in March 2020 he shuttered his private practice, resulting in a major loss of income for us. I was lucky to have recently signed a contract for my fifth novel, Fierce Little Thing—about a group of children raised on a commune-turned-cult—but finishing it as soon as I could suddenly became vital to my family’s well being.
Meanwhile, we’d lost our home in Brooklyn, along with our childcare, and any sense of what our future held. I knew that if I could deliver the novel by the summer of 2020, the chances were good it could come out a year later, and I would be paid. I had no choice but to write that book in a state of mortal and financial terror, without much sleep or hope. I am proud of it, but certain it shaved years off my life.
I should be more grateful. But the truth is, I’m as hungry as Vladimir’s narrator. I want room to write like she does, simply because I have something to say. The luxury of that experience feels so far from the life I know. Instead, any work I accomplish makes me desperate for more, turning me into Gollum hunched over my preciousness, while my children beg me to fill in the gaps of all they’ve lost. Who can blame them? (Before Young Leda leaves her family in The Lost Daughter, we find her huddled at a desk in the corner of her bedroom, headphones in, mumbling in Italian, trying to get in the time with her mind that she desperately needs, while her children weep in the background, unattended by their father, who has more pressing work. I nodded. I cried.)
What Vladimir’s narrator’s writing unlocks in her leads to a delicious, dangerous choice I dare not spoil—one which combines her pursuit of the story she’s writing with the pursuit of Vladimir. She takes what she is hungry for, consequences be damned. She can’t help but hope that the lust she feels will bear out when she enjoys unfettered access to its object, and yet, when Vladimir is finally before her, the reality of his fantasies—insulting in how predictable they are—force her to reorient everything she believed about him, which, once again, changes the course of her life. In the process, she reverts to self-cruelty about the state of her body: “people would laugh at how ridiculous it was that this specimen of a man with his conventionally attractive wife would make a pass at a postmenopausal creature such as myself.”I cannot choose between my children and writing, because without either of them, I would not be whole.
I hate that she talks about herself like this, but I understand. I’ve spent more time looking at myself in the mirror, on Zoom, on Facetime, these past two years than ever before. I am appalled by the weathering I see. Once I delivered my book, I had to take new author photos. I look different than before. There’s something dark in my expression that will never go away. And I thought, yes, I want the picture to show that. I realized that I could require something of an author photo that I’d never imagined before: for it to tell the truth about what I survived while making the book on which it would appear. I was quarantined with a photographer, so we spent the time it took to craft my look: strength in my stance, a cliff face behind me, a grey weathered t-shirt. When he showed me most of the pictures, I couldn’t find myself, but this particular one, I thought, I want to be her friend. I thought, she looks like she is fighting for something. He offered to photo shop it and I told him don’t you dare.
Is it selfish that Vladimir’s narrator, and Leda, and I, want all the room in the world to use our minds? I cannot choose between my children and writing, because without either of them, I would not be whole. So, then, what is the solution? To be tethered to my house, locked in with them, inadequate in both roles? It should be noted that well over a century ago, Henry James (in Portrait of a Lady, with Isabel Archer), Edith Wharton (in House of Mirth, with Lily Bart), and Kate Chopin (in The Awakening, with Edna Pontellier) were all exploring whether a woman can pursue a life outside of the confines of her domestic responsibilities.
Each of these characters suffer for seeking independence, as does Leda, I’m sad to report, and Vladimir’s narrator—although in the last, extraordinary sentence of the book, encountering her complicity in the pain her husband has caused, it’s possible she discovers salvation. We haven’t come that far, but then, did we really think we had?
In my novel, Fierce Little Thing, women make the commune their home so that they don’t have to be stranded by the roles assigned to them. They seek shelter from the harsh reality of patriarchy, but in the end, they find themselves in the grip of it. And yet, truly, that’s the only solace I’ve found in this difficult time—matriarchy—or at least, pretending to live outside of patriarchy. Sometimes that feels possible: my husband, who does the bulk of our housework, was raised partly on a lesbian commune, the gentlest man my friends say they have met. My sister and I moved our families to Vermont and are raising our babies, with our mother, like a pack of wolves. Even then, this life is untenable. I don’t want to fuck anyone but my husband. I don’t want to abandon my children.
But someday very soon I will need to walk freely, and think, and exist, without having to be in a state of constant vigilance. At one point Leda tells an expectant mother that, “children are a crushing responsibility.” Would I have chosen this if I’d known how this era would crush me? Certainly, I tell myself. And yet my mind is held back, always. It is ever ravenous.
That’s what I notice, all around me. All the mothers—Vladimir’s narrator, Leda, my friends, the mothers writing essay after essay about how impossible this is, my older sister the doctor, my younger sister the mother of two little ones—are hungry. Getting lost in a film or a book made by a woman, which holds up a mirror so that I can respect, even for a moment, the woman I discover in there, offers some nourishment. But I have been starved for some time now. I wonder what I, and all the mothers, will choose to devour when we can finally feast again.