Weinman succeeds at her most important task, which is to make sure we’ll never think about Lolita or Lolita again without sparing a thought for Sally Horner ... Her dogged reconstruction of what an average day in Baltimore might have been for Sally, based mostly on her probable route to school and back, is especially heartbreaking in the sheer tenacity of her gumshoeing guesswork ... Weinman’s interpolated chapters on Nabokov’s activities in the late 1940s and early 1950s feel a bit makeshift, partly because their content—unlike Sally Horner’s story—is already familiar to the great man’s fans ... biographers and scholars explained Sally Horner’s Lolita cameo in passing, but without doing the spadework that would have led them to realize how close the parallels between her story and Lolita’s actually were ... [Weinman] wants us to remember Sally, and The Real Lolita all but guarantees we will.
By combing through court documents and newspaper accounts and interviewing surviving friends and family members, Weinman has evocatively reconstructed Sally’s nightmare, as well as the sexual mores of mid-20th-century America ... Weinman has compassionately given Sally Horner pride of place once more in her own life, a life that was first brutally warped by Frank La Salle, and then appropriated by one of the most brilliant writers of the 20th century.
The sections detailing Sally’s abduction read as standard-issue, ripped-from-the-headlines Dead Girl fare ... Weinman has written widely on crime fiction; in her own prose, cheesed-up cliffhangers abound ... The Real Lolita—which has won a flurry of advance praise—hopes to transcend its essential salaciousness and its warmed-over genre clichés by appealing to something resembling restorative justice. But the nets are empty, and the butterflies are already dead ... The problem with Weinman’s approach is that novels aren’t murder mysteries or missing-persons cases. They cannot be reduced ... Weinman’s stance also seems fundamentally anti-fiction. She appears to resent Lolita for depicting cruelty with charm, allusive style, and psychological acuity—for being beautiful, when its subject matter is not. This is an unsophisticated criticism, and Weinman tries to disguise it, by making the act of novel-writing an actual crime, and Nabokov a villain who trapped a girl in a book ... this book presents no evidence that Nabokov exploited Sally Horner to breathe life into his imaginings. What it insinuates, powerfully, is that Weinman has exploited both Sally and Nabokov to justify her prurient interest in yet another sad, dead girl.
The Real Lolita makes up for the Horner-shaped lacuna in its center by a deft and thorough depiction of the mid-century suburban context of both Horner’s abduction and Nabokov’s novel. It was an atmosphere of pervasive victim-blaming, even when the victim was a child ... In The Real Lolita, Weinman hasn’t brought Horner back to life—that would be impossible—but she’s gone a long way toward making it clear what’s lost when such stories aren’t told.
Weaving together chapters that juxtapose Sally’s experiences with Nabokov’s writing of his masterpiece, Weinman exposes his ambivalence about plumbing real-life stories for his novels and the extent to which he relied on, but largely obfuscated, such stories in the crafting of his fiction. The similarities that Weinman reveals between Sally Horner and Dolores Haze are striking ... Weinman manages to rise above mere conjecture and to show that Sally Horner was not as 'irrelevant' to Lolita as Nabokov would have liked us to believe ... Unfortunately for Weinman, and for the reader, this outline of a life on the run doesn’t add up to very much. Sally’s portrait remains blurry. Almost nothing about her survived from this period ... Deciphering a life as unknowable as Sally’s is a tall order, even for a reporter steeped in true-crime history like Weinman ... Gaps in the story having to do with Sally’s thoughts throughout her captivity ... remain glaringly exposed ... We are presented...with a series of clichés ... Weinman makes the most of her findings. One can tell she is a crime writer from her alertness to unusual details ... we move away from the story of Sally Horner and toward the metaliterary concern animating her book. This is both to Weinman’s detriment and to her credit. While The Real Lolita is sure to disappoint true-crime enthusiasts, the result is something more tangled: an attempt to understand an elusive artist at work.
Weinman points out the many parallels between the novel and Sally’s life (so cruelly shortened after her rescue—she was just 15 when she died), while chronicling Nabokov’s own cross-country journeys, writing habits, and denial of the Horner connection. Weinman’s sensitive insights into Horner’s struggle play in stunning counterpoint to her illuminations of Nabokov’s dark obsession and literary daring, and Lolita’s explosive impact.
By the end of The Real Lolita, I could not help feeling tenderness for [Sally] Horner. Weinman has presented a compelling outline of a life—touching in its pain, resilience, and surprising banality, and animated by the author’s impressive ability to tell a good story even when the material is slim—but she hasn’t managed to fill it in. The questions of victimhood gnaw at us long after the 'real' story has been told. What is it like to suffer? What is it like to survive? How does a little girl cope with the absurdity of life, and with her own unarticulated pain? How does she wrest back control? Ironically, if we want to hear a victim’s voice, we have to return to the fictional Lolita ...
Lolita and The Real Lolita are both confrontations with the silence of abuse, the tyranny of the male narrator, but they are also, at their cores, celebrations of two girls whose lives and deaths are simultaneously tragic and banal, heroic and endearing, terrible and human. And yet, ultimately, only the fictional girl succeeds in undermining the male narrator. Lolita retains power; Sally cannot. That is the magical democracy of fiction. Only the fictional Lolita can appear to us, vibrant and resilient. If Sarah Weinman wants to hear the silenced speak, she might turn to the only realm in which that is possible—the realm of art.
Her book makes for riveting reading, despite a disconcerting tendency to fill in blanks with conjectures (about young Sally's thoughts, for example) and to overplay cliffhangers at the end of each chapter. Weinman is a thorough reporter who is most compelling when she tells it straight ... Loaded words like 'pilfered' and 'strip-mined' clearly convey Weinman's attitude. In fact, Nabokov comes across in her book as an insufferable—if brilliantly inventive—snob, aesthete and egotist ... The Real Lolita stands out for its captivating mix of tenacious investigative reporting, well-chosen photographs, astute literary analysis and passionate posthumous recognition of a defenseless child who — until now—never received the literary acknowledgment she deserved.
Weinman sets out to correct this erasure and honor Sally Horner...It’s a noble goal, yet Sally remains the cipher at the book’s center, most alive in the photos that show a smiling child and, even more poignant, the young teenager who never had the chance to grow into a woman. Too many questions remain unanswered and maybe unanswerable ... Weinman has more success underscoring how 'Any speculation that ‘Lolita’ could be inspired by a real-life case went against the single-minded Nabokovian belief that art supersedes influence, and so influence must be brushed off' ... Nearly 70 years after Sally Horner’s death, Weinman’s dark and compulsively readable book will make readers aware of the absence of a nearly forgotten girl’s voice in discussions of one of the great works of American literature.
This is an odd hybrid of a book. It’s half true crime story and half literary criticism and, overall, an honest attempt to unearth the origins of the iconic novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, now celebrating its 60th year since publication ... It’s a provocative and timely thesis in the #MeToo age we live in and makes this a worthy hybrid, so long as you’re not looking for a typical true crime story. This is much more than that.
Sarah Weinman is a crime writer who has seriously researched the Nabokov connection. Her book provides extensive background for the Horner story ... The achievement of her impressive literary sleuthing is to bring to life a girl whose story had been lost.
Weinman makes it clear, however, that her book is not intended as an attack on Nabokov or his work. Weinman’s greatest gripe with Nabokov was that he refused to acknowledge that Sally’s terrible story in any way influenced a literary masterpiece, despite the obvious evidence that it did ... With The Real Lolita, Weinman achieves what she set out to do by reclaiming Sally’s story. Her greatest achievement, though, is reminding readers that Sally Horner was simply a little girl who deserved better, making it that much more difficult to read Lolita without considering the reality of her situation.
In this case, the subtitle promises more than the book can deliver ... While it’s important to recognize the facts about Sally Horner, Weinman also relies on conjecture, often based on second-hand information from friends or acquaintances of Sally to fill the gaps of her speculative narrative. This mixing of fact and conjecture mutes the overall effect of her argument ... The assertion that Dolores is based on Sally is pure conjecture ... It’s easy to praise Weinman’s book as a new look at Lolita. It’s also just as easy to dismiss its contribution to Nabokov scholarship. Neither judgment is completely fair. Weinman is owed her due. But Nabokov’s novel overshadows it all ... Weinman’s book neither diminishes nor enhances his. Reading hers should not affect the reading of his. While Weinman’s work informs the creative process, it does not change the response to Nabokov’s masterwork ... The Real Lolita is best considered with an asterisk, as a footnote to Nabokov studies. It should provide incentive to read or reread the real Lolita.
She makes a convincing case, though the writer’s real achievement is in evocatively relating the story of a girl who — like her fictional counterpart — was no temptress, as the word 'Lolita' has come to mean, but the victim of a sexual predator. The author has brilliantly filled out her subject’s ghost. B+
... [Nabokov] denied that Lolita was inspired by the case. But Sarah Weinman’s exhaustive research reveals many parallels ... Weinman is clear: she does not want to diminish the achievement of Lolita but rather 'to augment the horror he also captured in the novel'. In this she succeeds well, and her compassionate account reveals the 'darkness of real life' behind the novel. She allows Sally, like one of Nabokov’s trapped butterflies, to 'emerge from the cage of both fiction and fact, ready to fly free'.
The book includes a few odd digressions and a fair amount of conjecture. More poignantly, Weinman argues that Nabokov and his wife, Véra—who served as her husband’s spokesperson and flatly denied the use of Sally’s story as inspiration for his novel—allowed Sally to be eclipsed by her fictional counterpart ... Drawing from interviews with relatives of those involved, Nabokov’s personal documents, and court reporting from La Salle’s trial, Weinman tells Sally’s tragic story as it has never been told before, with sensitivity and depth.
... an admirable, if at times unsuccessful, mission. While Weinman’s refusal to read Lolita on Nabokov’s terms is refreshing, her book can also feel hostile to the very nature of literary fiction—which is always attempting to draw both from the world and beyond it—and uninterested in the political capacities of stories that aren’t true ... Weinman crafts The Real Lolita like a detective story, tracking down clues that indicate when Nabokov discovered the Horner case, how much he knew about it, and 'his efforts to disguise that knowledge.' Whether you find these parts of The Real Lolita convincing or not, the remainder of the book, which focuses on Horner, is compelling and forcefully narrated. Deeply researched and rich in detail, these sections provide a vivid glimpse into the way that crimes against women were reported on and investigated in postwar America. However, when Weinman shifts her attention to Nabokov, The Real Lolita wades into murkier waters, finding true crime in what arguably should be creative license ... the alleged similarities between Lolita and the Horner case are largely unconvincing ... one finds it hard not to feel that Weinman has perhaps overindulged the true-crime framework and found a transgression where most readers would not.