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The Real Lolita
Cover of The Real Lolita
The Real Lolita
A Lost Girl, an Unthinkable Crime, and a Scandalous Masterpiece
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"The Real Lolita is a tour de force of literary detective work. Not only does it shed new light on the terrifying true saga that influenced Nabokov's masterpiece, it restores the forgotten victim to our consciousness." —David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is one of the most beloved and notorious novels of all time. And yet very few of its readers know that the subject of the novel was inspired by a real-life case: the 1948 abduction of eleven-year-old Sally Horner.

Weaving together suspenseful crime narrative, cultural and social history, and literary investigation, The Real Lolita tells Sally Horner's full story for the very first time. Drawing upon extensive investigations, legal documents, public records, and interviews with remaining relatives, Sarah Weinman uncovers how much Nabokov knew of the Sally Horner case and the efforts he took to disguise that knowledge during the process of writing and publishing Lolita.

Sally Horner's story echoes the stories of countless girls and women who never had the chance to speak for themselves. By diving deeper in the publication history of Lolita and restoring Sally to her rightful place in the lore of the novel's creation, The Real Lolita casts a new light on the dark inspiration for a modern classic.

"The Real Lolita is a tour de force of literary detective work. Not only does it shed new light on the terrifying true saga that influenced Nabokov's masterpiece, it restores the forgotten victim to our consciousness." —David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is one of the most beloved and notorious novels of all time. And yet very few of its readers know that the subject of the novel was inspired by a real-life case: the 1948 abduction of eleven-year-old Sally Horner.

Weaving together suspenseful crime narrative, cultural and social history, and literary investigation, The Real Lolita tells Sally Horner's full story for the very first time. Drawing upon extensive investigations, legal documents, public records, and interviews with remaining relatives, Sarah Weinman uncovers how much Nabokov knew of the Sally Horner case and the efforts he took to disguise that knowledge during the process of writing and publishing Lolita.

Sally Horner's story echoes the stories of countless girls and women who never had the chance to speak for themselves. By diving deeper in the publication history of Lolita and restoring Sally to her rightful place in the lore of the novel's creation, The Real Lolita casts a new light on the dark inspiration for a modern classic.

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About the Author-
  • Sarah Weinman is the author of The Real Lolita, and editor of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s (Library of America) and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (Penguin). She covers book publishing for Publishers Marketplace, and has written for the New York Times, the New Republic, the Guardian, and Buzzfeed, among other outlets. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    June 11, 2018
    Journalist and editor Weinman (Women Crime Writers) 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 Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel. Sally Horner, like Nabokov’s Dolores Haze, was abducted and taken across state lines by a pedophile who passed himself off as her father in public and abused her in private. Weinman chronicles the details of what is known about Sally’s life during the nearly two years she spent captive with her abductor, Frank La Salle, before recounting her harrowing rescue and La Salle’s trial and conviction for kidnapping. Alongside Sally’s narrative, Weinman looks at Nabokov’s process writing Lolita, which he agonized over for years and twice nearly destroyed. The book includes a few odd digressions and a fair amount of conjecture (“Perhaps Sally wondered why they were going so far out of their way.... Maybe she asked why they had to leave Atlantic City so quickly. Most likely, she kept any complaints or questions to herself”). 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: Sally’s life had been “strip-mined to produce the bones of Lolita.” 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.

  • Kirkus

    July 1, 2018
    True crime meets classic American literature.Lolita wasn't always considered the great work of literature it has become. Journalist Weinman (editor: Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and '50s, 2015, etc.), who covers the book publishing industry for Publishers Marketplace, describes the struggles Vladimir Nabokov endured trying to find a publisher for his novel about Humbert Humbert's desire for and abduction of the young Lolita until the notorious Olympia Press published it overseas in 1955. Weinman also recounts the story of journalist Peter Welding's 1963 article in the men's magazine Nugget. He argued that the story of 11-year-old Sally Horner's abduction in 1948 by mechanic Frank La Salle, who claimed for 12 months that she was his daughter, paralleled the Lolita story "much too closely to be coincidental." Weinman's book is about her quest to "figure out what [Nabokov] knew about Sally Horner and when he knew it." Nabokov always denied any real-life influences. Like any good detective, Weinman visited the places Sally visited, talked to people who knew her and La Salle, and visited the schools Sally attended. At times, the author relies on her imagination to re-create Sally's story: Did Sally imagine escaping; did she pray? In alternating chapters, Weinman recounts the 20-year genesis of Nabokov's novel, which "emerged piecemeal." She explores how he and his wife often traveled the country, staying at motels and searching for butterflies, all the while composing Lolita on index cards. The author also draws attention to an August 1952, newspaper article about Sally's death at 15 and the notes Nabokov took about it. Here, she writes, "is proof that her story captured his attention." Ultimately, "Lolita's narrative...depended more on a real-life crime than Nabokov would ever admit."A tantalizing, entertaining true-life detective and literary story whose roots were hidden deep in a novel that has perplexed and challenged readers for decades.

    COPYRIGHT(2018) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    August 1, 2018

    In 1948, 11-year-old New Jersey schoolgirl Sally Horner was kidnapped by a man who claimed to be an FBI agent. That man, pedophile Frank La Salle, held Sally in captivity, posing as her father, for nearly two years. Her dramatic escape was covered in most major news outlets. During this time, a Russian émigré was working sporadically on a novel and climbing the academic ladder at U.S. Ivy League schools, heading west to hunt butterflies in the summertime. Several years after Sally's rescue and the imprisonment of La Salle, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita was published. Crime writer and editor Weinman uses her research skills to connect Sally's story with Nabokov's controversial novel--a connection that Nabokov denied but Weinman disproves point by point. Nabokov, easier to research but perhaps more cunning, left hints and riddles in the text of his novel and in his notes that point to Sally Horner. VERDICT This intricate balance of journalism and cultural critique is perfect for historical crime readers, feminist scholars, victims' rights advocates, and literature lovers. Recommended as a squirm-inducing read-along with Nabokov's novel. [See "Editors' Fall Picks," p. 29.]--Liz French, Library Journal

    Copyright 2018 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • New York Times Book Review "The achievement of [Weinman's] impressive literary sleuthing is to bring to life a girl whose story had been lost."
  • O Magazine "Gripping. . . . Glimpses into Nabokov's process will tantalize die-hard fans, and true crime aficionados will relish Weinman's assiduous reporting."
  • Fresh Air "Superb. . . . A compelling investigation. . . . Weinman has evocatively reconstructed Sally's nightmare."
  • People "[A] gripping tale of a long-forgotten victim whose ordeal also echoes the more recent cases of Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard."
  • Entertainment Weekly "[Weinman's] real achievement is evocatively relating the story of a girl who—like her fictional counterpart—was no temptress...but the victim of a sexual predator. . . . [She] has brilliantly filled out her subject's ghost."
  • NPR.org "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."
  • Los Angeles Times "Riveting. . . . Scrupulously researched. . . . 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."
  • Washington Post "Superb. . . . 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."
  • Boston Globe "A sensitive look at the troubling crime that influenced Vladimir Nabokov's most notorious book; Weinman writes with insight and empathy about both the famous author and the now-forgotten girl whose story intrigued him."
  • Los Angeles Review of Books "Utterly engrossing. . . . Weinman's obsession becomes the reader's obsession. . . . We develop boundless compassion for this once little girl, along with a deep empathy and sorrow for the story of her life."
  • NY Daily News "Heartbreaking and sobering."
  • Buzzfeed "A riveting blend of true crime, historical investigation, and literary analysis, Sarah Weinman adds another dimension to this already complicated context."
  • Refinery29 "In this stunning work of investigative journalism, Sarah Weinman resurrects the Horner case and uncovers its deep connection to Lolita."
  • Huffington Post "Weinman's gripping work of true crime challenges a culture that privileges artistic genius over a child's life."
  • Nylon Magazine "Fascinating. . . . Weinman's book works brilliantly as both detective narrative and cultural history. . . . She gives us brilliant insight into a tragic story, but also a nuanced, empathetic look at the young girl at its center."
  • Elle "Gripping."
  • AARP Magazine "Weinman describes the heart-wrenching crime and shows how [Nabokov] quietly wove aspects of it into his famous Lolita."
  • Popsugar "Part true crime story, part literary mystery. . . . Gorgeously written, The Real Lolita reads like a novel and will thrill and captivate readers."
  • The Atlantic "Sarah Weinman unearths the case of Sally Horner, a schoolgirl who was kidnapped in 1948. . . . Weinman argues that the road-trip and school details provided Nabokov with the scaffolding he needed to finish Lolita. . . . She's essentially clinched the case."
  • Publishers Weekly "Weinman tells Sally's tragic story as it has never been told before, with sensitivity and depth."
  • Kirkus Reviews "A tantalizing, entertaining true-life detective and literary story."
  • Booklist "Spine-straightening. . . . 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."
  • Gilbert King "Sarah Weinman delivers a thoroughly riveting and heartbreaking narrative that weaves the very best of true crime writing with the darker elements of literary inspiration."
  • David Grann "The Real Lolita is a tour de force of literary detective work. Not only does it shed new light on the terrifying true saga that influenced Nabokov's masterpiece, it restores the...
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