Review: Lolita

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

published 1955 – 309 pages

From the back cover –

Awe and exhilaration – along with heartbreak and mordant wit – abound in Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s most famous and controversial novel, which tells the story of the aging Humbert Humbert’s obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze.  Lolitais also the story of a hypercivilized European colliding with the cheerful barbarism of postwar America.  Most of all, it is a meditation on love – love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation.

My thoughts –

Ok, so I am a person who is VERY tolerant of controversial topics and ideas in books.  In fact, I tend to enjoy abnormal stuff – as long the story is interesting and the characters well-written, I don’t mind swearing, sex, violence, and I’ll definitely try reading just about anything.  In fact, books about things that would make me squeamish usually intrigue me MORE, just because I get curious and want to know what the fuss is about.

So, having said all that… I just didn’t get this book at ALL.  In a nutshell, guy falls in love with this ten-year-old girl (I truthfully cannot see how anyone can consider pedophelia “love” per se, but for the sake of argument, we’ll just call it that for now), marries her mother, a few months later the mother dies, so the guy gets to spend the next few years in a “relationshp” with his stepdaughter.  They travel the country (because of course they can’t be stationary what with all those dumb laws he is breaking), and after a few years he “lets her go” (more like she runs away with someone else) and is heartbroken forever.  Sorry to anyone I just spoiled that for, but I think most people know the gist of the story anyway.  Ok, so now that the synopsis is out of the way, somebody PLEASE explain to me what makes this book a “classic” and one of the “only convincing love stories of the century”.  Come on, the guy is a pedophile.  It’s really not beautiful, or heart-wrenching, or divine… there is no love here, there is a young girl being raped every single day by the one person she has left in her life to trust.  Beyond that, I can’t think of what else to call it and I sure can’t understand what’s so great about this story.

I did finish it though, because I wanted to see her get a mind of her own and get the heck out of this situation and find a real life for herself (sadly, she did get out but nothing good really seemed to happen to this poor girl even after leaving this “relationship”).  I wish I had something more positive to say, but it was just one of those things… I just don’t get it.  Actually I take that back about nothing positive – the writing was exquisite.  There were some very excellent passages here, and everything did flow extremely well.  However, good writing alone is not ever going to make me love a book.

I would like to say, that I would be thrilled to see a modern author write a re-telling of this story from the girl’s perspective.  Now THAT would make a good book.  Not once in this entire novel did we even have a glimmer of what her feelings were… I’d love to read a whole book dedicated to who this Lolita person really is.

Sorry for the negative review, I really hate writing these but I can’t see any other way around it.  Gotta be honest, and this book just did not do it for me.  Read at your own risk.

Also reviewed by: Becca at The Inside Cover, Nymeth at Things Mean a Lot and Maree at Just Add Books

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13 thoughts on “Review: Lolita”

  1. It’s been a few years since I read Lolita, but I remember having a similar reaction as you. I also remember having a hard time reading Pnin for a college course, because I could think of Nabokov only as a dirty man.

  2. I didn’t understand why they called it a love story either. What?! But I did enjoy the book. I felt it was a little slow and some parts were hard to get through, but other than that I actually really liked it. I think Nabakov writes beautifully and includes vivid descriptions. I also think part of the reason this was such a celebrated novel was because it was written in English, not Nabakov’s first language.

  3. Heather, Thank you for this review. I have to admit that I have purposefully avoided this book because from what I’ve heard it “celebrates” the idea of pedophilia and that is one are that I have NO TOLERANCE for in real life OR literature. I have seen first hand (with my early work with molested kids) the tragedy of this crime and I have no plan to support it by reading books about it. So I’ll never read this “classic” for exactly what you hated about it! Normally, I do not boycott books (I am pretty open-minded), but this one is definitely on my do not read list!

    http://www.caribousmom.com

  4. I have heard about this book and often wondered why in the world it is considered a love story, or got to be a classic. Isn’t there anything redeeming about the characters? It sounds terribly sad and depressing.

  5. Heather–I don’t know if I’d want to see this story from Lolita’s perspective; it might just be too painful. She wouldn’t have the smoothness, the anticipation, the suspense that makes Nabokov’s book work–her story would be one long narrative of darkness and more darkness and the light at the end of the tunnel would still be awfully grey…

    The brilliance of this book, disgusting as the premise is (Nabokov almost burned his first draft because it bothered him so much), is that Humbert is such an unreliable narrator and yet he’s so logical and seemingly charming (but that all may be part of the unreliability); besides, many classics are filled with horrid characters. I read Lolita a few years ago (grad school) for the first time and my husband and I are listening to it on CD right now. It bothers us (we’re taking a break from it right now), but it’s supposed to. And we can’t help but appreciate Nabokov’s skill with his craft. As to celebrating the idea of pedophilia–it really doesn’t. And as to being a love story–that’s all in the narrator’s mind. I think anyone who calls it that is either saying it tongue-in-cheek or really doesn’t understand the book at all.

    I don’t promise anyone they’re going to love the book, but it’s brilliant as a piece of fiction, and I think anyone who loves reading and writing would be well advised to read it–even if it makes you horribly uncomfortable. (If you get it on CD, Jeremy Irons does a great Humbert; he also played Humbert in the more recent remake of the movie.)

    http://www.time.com/time/2005/100books/0,24459,lolita,00.html

  6. I confessed I read it out of curiosity of the story. But I find the writing very beautiful. It’s Nabakov at his best with the prose. Humbert is very etched although he is an unreliable character.

  7. Hi Heather:
    Lolita is probably my favorite book of all time. For me, it’s the writing, which I find absolutely transcendant (especially given it’s not Nabakov’s first language). Humbert is a sick, perverted man, yes, but I think Nabakov succeeds in making him likable – or at least entertaining – in large part because the writing is just so compelling. My one complaint is that the book totally falls apart at the end. I can understand why people take issue with this book… for me, though, I was enthralled by the use of language.

  8. Thanks for tackling such a tough subject. It’s been years since I read LOLITA, and I would not feel comfortable saying too much without revisiting it. But I do wish that all the people who have sworn never to read this book would do so not for Humbert Humbert, but for Lolita. Our society tosses her name around as a synonym for sexually precocious and early developing young girls. This is not the case at all in Nabakov’s story. Our “misuse” of her name perpetuates the myth that Nabakov is somehow celebrating pedophilia and does the character as well as the whole story further injustice. I read LOLITA as a tragedy; I found all the characters to be tragic. As in “real life,” I believe you can find a person tragic, and have sympathy for them, without ever endorsing their behavior. That’s the essence of compassion. My life isn’t easy, particulary at the moment, but how much more horrible it would be to spend my entire existence here on earth as a warped, damaged, and perverted individual. If anyone wants to speak out against this book, I really think they need to read it first.

  9. The problem with most people and this book is that they get stuck on the pedophilia angle, and therefore miss the whole point of the book. I understand that some people–and a few commenters here expressed fine examples of sheer literary ignorance–will treat the novel like some communicable disease, as if reading “Lolita” will incite lust for children. Obviously, it does no such thing, nor does reading this book imply agreement with Humbert Humbert’s pedophilia. Humbert Humbert is actually a very likable and sympathetic character, and Nabokov’s prose is gorgeous. When you talk about “Lolita” being a love story, it truly is–in regards to Nabokov’s love of language. As Updike said, Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written–ecstatically. That’s love. So yes: it is one of the most beautiful love stories ever written simply because it’s so beautifully written–not because of the relationship Nabokov portrays.

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