Journalist and editor Weinman combines literary theory and true crime in this speculative account of the 1948 kidnapping of Sally Horner, an 11-year-old New Jersey girl who Weinman posits was the real-life inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov’s iconic 1955 novel.
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 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.
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.