My Heavenly Favorite: A Novel

Image of My Heavenly Favorite: A Novel
Release Date: 
March 5, 2024
Graywolf Press
Reviewed by: 

It’s impossible to discuss Lucas Rijneveld’s My Heavenly Favorite without discussing Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Told in an epistolary style from the perspective of the perpetrator directly to his “favorite,” his “fugitive,” his “porcelain girl,” his “chosen one” (the list goes on), the reader experiences the narrator’s crimes through the distortions of their creator. “Rijneveld refracts the contours of the Lolita story with a kind of perverse glee,” reads the summary on the back of the book. Well said.

In his exploration of Nabokov’s Lolita, scholar John Lennard documents some early responses to the novel’s publication. A reviewer for the London Sunday Express deemed Lolita, “the filthiest book I have ever read.” A New York Times review called it “dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid, archly fatuous fashion,” as well as naming it “repulsive . . . highbrow pornography.” Esteemed novelist Evelyn Waugh judged it simply, “Smut.”

Lennard goes on to analyze what it is that offends the reader: is it the theme of pedophilia or the treatment of that theme? Likely, it’s both, which applies to Rijneveld’s novel, as well. The content is haunting, deplorable, devastating, but the treatment of that content is just as jarring.

Both novels imbue their narrators with witty intellect and keen observational powers. As awful as both men are, they’re still interesting to listen to. Both novels also give backstories to their monstrous anti-heroes. Nabokov’s Humbert loses his first young love and Rijneveld’s “Kurt” is a victim of his mother’s sexual abuses. Monsters aren’t born, they’re made, and both novels do well to expose that truth. Still, these explanations tread too far into the realm of justification, especially in Rijneveld’s case. The narrator is cognizant of his damage; he trots it out for the reader to see, and—rather than effect any healthy change—he doubles-down on his perversions.

In a rare departure from the Lolita narrative, Rijneveld’s “Kurt” (nicknamed after Kurt Cobain, one of many pop-culture references dotting the text) is married with two sons. There’s an uncomfortable love triangle between the narrator, his oldest son, and the farmer’s daughter, which succeeds in complicating the storyline, but not enhancing it. How could this man have raised two teenage children and found himself in this position?

Or maybe the question is: How could the narrator’s wife and sons have stayed with him as long as they have? Or, how do they stand him at all? Or, what do they possibly find of worth or value? The narrator’s behavior is immeasurably disgraceful, which makes its ultimately unbelievable within the context of his life. The responses of those nearest him are equally inconceivable.

Many an early reviewer of Nabokov’s novel found primary fault in Lolita, calling her a seductress, a temptress, a slut. Kurt’s wife Camillia follows suit when she finds out about her husband’s transgressions. Sure, Kurt receives some wrath, but the vast majority of her blame goes toward the child, a girl her husband repeatedly rapes in moments of compounding injury (he forces himself upon her while the girl is hospitalized, for example). Camillia also happens to be the girl’s teacher, and it’s impossible not to parallel this moment with Lolita’s mother’s response to finding Humbert’s writings. Both wives are disgusted, but Camillia doesn’t think to protect the child, to warn her away, or even to take her own sons and leave.

In his exploration of Lolita, Lennard includes a piece of correspondence from Nabokov’s wife, Vera, to a friend, written in 1966. “Critics prefer to look for moral symbols, justification, condemnation, or explanation of HH’s predicament,” she writes. “I wish, though, someone would notice the tender description of the child’s helplessness, her pathetic dependence on monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage all along culminating in that squalid but essentially pure and healthy marriage, and her letter, and her dog.”

The same defense is warranted of the deeply harmed “favorite” in Rijneveld’s novel. We’re told that she finds success away from Kurt, though his influence on her reverberates into her future (and he—of course—takes credit for much of her success). Make no mistake, the victim of this novel is full of a “child’s helplessness,” and her “pathetic dependence” on her abuser is indeed “heartrending,” but she is only, ever, the narrator’s obsession, which keeps her removed from the reader. It’s her story that should be told, but we are never allowed to hear it.

There’s no question that Rijneveld is a brilliant writer (his first novel, The Discomfort of Evening, won the International Booker prize), and My Heavenly Favorite is full of beautiful lines and astute metaphors for the human condition—from birds to frogs to cows. It dives full-on into fear and the power of imagination with lines like, “you liked the fact that you could only get rid of a monster by not believing in it, that monsters couldn’t handle that . . .”

And possibly the monster who is the narrator is speaking of himself—he can’t handle her disbelief in him—which humanizes him slightly, though not enough. The narrator pretends to be writing to his “favorite,” but he isn’t really. He is writing to himself.

Literature isn’t in the business of shying away from ugliness—at least it shouldn’t be—and the world’s library is richer for the risks authors take. Nabokov stared straight into a well of ugliness in his creation of Lolita, and Rijneveld does the same with My Heavenly Favorite. It isn’t a question of whether this kind of story should told, but rather a question of whether it should be told again. At the end of the day, that “perverse glee” with which this novel “refracts the Lolita story” feels in service to itself more than anything else. There is nothing new enough in these pages to warrant the retelling.

Note: Quotes from John Lennard’s Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita, edited by Charles Moseley, (Humanities-Ebooks, LLP, 2008).