Review: Being Lolita by Alisson Wood

Coy best describes Alisson Wood’s relationship with the reader in Being Lolita. Wood cunningly uses the reader’s knowledge so that, at decisive points, they either read with or against the grain of this text. In the preface, Wood narrates her and the teacher’s first kiss. When the teacher kisses the inside of Alisson’s ankle to quell the itch of a mosquito bite, Alisson hadn’t read the novel. At that point, Mr. Nick North, her English teacher, told Alison that the story of Humbert and Lolita is a love story. A reader’s reaction to her admission sets up their relationship with the rest of the memoir. If you know anything about Vladimir Nabokov, you know what Lolita is about.

Alisson Wood controls her narrative in this debut memoir. In three parts, the memoir tells the story of the year Wood spent in an abusive relationship with her high school Mr. Nick North, referred to throughout the memoir as Nick, Nick North, Mr. Nick North, or the teacher, depending on the context. Narrated primarily from the adolescent Alisson’s perspective, author Wood explores the tantalizingly slow build and fall of this toxic relationship. Enacting the very structure of Nabokov’s novel, Wood explores the parallels between her relationship and Dolores Haze’s and expertly plays into this titillating trope: an illicit affair between teacher and student. However, Wood does not stop at mere mimicry. In her resonant and impressionistic prose, Wood dismantles the fantasy showing its underbelly.

Because he is a teacher, Mr. North and Alisson cannot be together in public. Therefore, Nick tells Alisson they must wait until she graduates to consummate their relationship. All the while, Mr. North builds anticipation for this event through teasing touches in the hallway, shared slips of papers between classes, and their shared love of literature. Throughout their tutoring sessions, office meetings, and late nights at The Roscoe Diner, Nick grooms Alisson, controlling, among many things, what she writes, how she reads, and whom she interacts with.

Alisson’s longing is palpable in Wood’s unpretentious but emotive prose, especially in part one, aptly titled Nymph. Wood noticeably plays with time in this section drawing out the school year, nine months, into what feels like years to show how adolescent Alisson longs for touch, companionship, and love. The coquettish back-and-forth plays not only with Alisson’s emotions but those of the read reader as we wait, knowing her expectations might not be met. The end of part one is both expected and shocking as she doesn’t get the magic and stars she bargained for—only yelling, pain, and blood.

Placing the reader directly into adolescent Alisson’s subjective experience often provoked potent feelings of frustration, discomfort, and desire, just as Alison felt them. Using seduction as a narrative tool, Wood flirts with readers, pulling them into the web of her relationship with Mr. Nick North. The reader’s background knowledge of Lolita adds dramatic irony, which Wood deftly uses to her advantage, creating a haunting effect as Wood delivers seemingly innocuous but impactful lines. Combined, these tactics give Wood the ability to parallel and detract from Nabokov’s work as needed to serve the memoir’s ultimate goal, illustrating the power of an unreliable narrator to shape a story.

While the power of the memoir comes with its precision, it was, at times, also its shortcoming. As she recounts this year, Wood stops the narrative’s flow at various points to reflect and refocus the reader’s attention. While the fantasy, seduction, and tension give the memoir its momentum, Wood does not want readers to get carried away. This is still a memoir about abuse. The tight grip Wood uses to drive the narrative forward can also be reined back at a moment’s notice, never allowing the reader to stray too far from Wood’s interpretation of events.

All this works well for the most part, except in moments when the control became overbearing. For example, in a scene where Nick is passing Alisson a note in the hallway, Wood stops to address the reader. She asks—when does a girl turn into prey? The structure of the memoir all points to the affair between the teacher and Alisson being an abusive one. Coming to this passage, readers may already have pieced together the connections between Lolita, Wood’s experience, and the way girls are preyed upon in society. Asking the question at this moment felt as if Wood did not fully trust the reader to come to this question by themselves.

However, even as I write this criticism, I cannot wholly lean into it. As much as it frustrated me, I’m not sure that this is really a problem for Wood’s prose. In fact, my criticism only furthers supports the point of the book. The relationship I describe is precisely the dynamic between Mr. Nick North and Alisson Wood. An incomplete list of things Nick controls: her name, giving her a multitude of infantilizing and inappropriate nicknames; what she keeps from their encounters, nothing but the writing notebook she barely uses at one point; the friends and relationships she has, including her sexual encounters; where she goes to college. As annoyed as I feel, it pales in comparison to the impact of Nick North’s abuse on Alisson Wood’s life.

And that is entirely the point of listening to survivors of abuse and why my critique doesn’t really hold up in a broader context. To really understand what Alisson Wood went through, my discomfort and annoyance, and my entitlement to a certain kind of reading experience need to take a back seat. Decentering the self from this reading experience is essential to prioritizing Alisson’s story. Ultimately, this may be the approach we all should take when prioritizing domestic abuse survivors’ narratives. Because at the end of the day, this beautiful and powerful memoir should have had to be written.

About the author

Taylor Michael is an editor and essayist currently completing an MFA at Columbia University. She is an inaugural Editorial Fellow at A Public Space and reviewer for Publisher's Weekly. In her free time, you can find her in the kitchen experimenting.

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