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The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World

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A gripping true-crime investigation of the 1948 abduction of Sally Horner and how it inspired Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel, Lolita

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.

306 pages, Hardcover

First published September 11, 2018

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About the author

Sarah Weinman

32 books252 followers
Sarah Weinman is the author of The Real Lolita: A Lost Girl, An Unthinkable Crime, and a Scandalous Masterpiece, which was named a Best Book of 2018 by NPR, BuzzFeed, The National Post, Literary Hub, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Vulture, and won the Arthur Ellis Award for Excellence in Crime Writing. She also edited the anthologies Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit & Obsession (Ecco) Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s (Library of America) and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (Penguin).

Weinman writes the twice-monthly Crime column for the New York Times Book Review. A 2020 National Magazine Award finalist for Reporting, her work has also appeared most recently in New York, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, the Washington Post, and AirMail, while her fiction has been published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and numerous anthologies. Weinman also writes (albeit less regularly) the “Crime Lady” newsletter, covering crime fiction, true crime, and all points in between.

She lives in New York City.


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Displaying 1 - 30 of 979 reviews
Profile Image for Julie .
4,081 reviews59k followers
November 23, 2018
The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman is a 2018 Ecco publication.

I’ll admit I was not familiar with the Sally Horner case until recently. This book and the historical fiction accounting of Sally Horner’s life- Rust and Stardust- have catapulted the true crime, horror this poor girl endured into the public consciousness, decades after the fact.

But, revisiting this case, also brings up the alleged link between Vladimir Nabakov’s novel, ‘Lolita’ and the real story of Sally Horner. Weinman attempts to prove that Nabakov pulled a ‘ripped from the headlines’ stunt when he wrote Lolita and chronicles his story alongside that of Sally Horner’s.

To be honest, I’ve written, erased, and re-written this review five times. I can’t settle my thoughts on this book or that of Lolita. I’m not sure how I feel about the author’s approach, but I’ve been doing some serious soul searching about Lolita.

Upon joining Goodreads, I grudgingly bestowed a four -star rating on “Lolita”. I’ve only read the book once and that was many years ago. I didn’t like the book all that much. The subject matter made me squirm, but like most other people I kept compulsively turning the pages. I think my rating has more to do the impact the book had, and the boldness of it. But, now, the more I think about the book, the less inclined I am to heap any kind of praise upon it. However, this review is not for that book, but, because of the format the author chose to present Sally Horner’s life story, I felt it did warrant a mention.

“The appreciation of art can make a sucker out of those who forget the darkness of real life”

What concerns me is this: I know people claim Lolita does not blame the victim. But I think it does, or at least that was the way the book was marketed. I couldn’t help but remember Amy Fisher- the infamous “Long Island Lolita”. Why did the press give her that particular moniker?

Because she was considered a temptress, an underage seductress. To me, this implies that people, at least in part, blame Lolita for her own exploitation, which is one of the main reasons I have had a big crisis of conscience about the book.

“Lolita’s success almost seemed designed so people missed the point. Its original publication by Olympia Press established its bona fides as a book too controversial for American consumption. And then, once it was finally published in the United States, the conversation centered around Humbert Humbert’s ‘love story’ with Dolores Haze, with few acknowledging, or even comprehending, that their relationship was an abuse of power. As a result, that left a vacuum for decades of readers to misinterpret Lolita. It allowed for a culture of teen-temptress vamping that did not account for the victimization at the novel’s core. Sixty years on, many readers still don’t see through Humbert Humbert’s vile perversions, and still blame Delores Haze for her behavior, as if she had the will to resist, and chose not to.”

Calling Sally Horner ‘The Real Lolita” could conjure up that tainted image many have of ‘Lolita’, and Sally Horner, bless her heart, does not deserve to have that type of image attached to her name in any way, shape or form. Sally was an in innocent girl, kidnapped by a pedophile, held captive and horribly abused. She was hardly a teen temptress.

I am glad, however, that Sally’s story has garnered some long overdue attention. Sadly, it may have been overshadowed by Nabakov connection.

While the author did an amazing job with Sally’s story, alternating it with Nabakov’s book may have lessened its impact. The research is meticulous and very well organized. Every person involved in Sally’s life is brought to life, both good and bad. But, I’m not sure if the author achieved the goal she had intended, when it came to the critical assessment of Nabakov.

These days, authors borrow from real events all the time and no one seems to mind. In fact, it is used as a marketing tool on many occasions. Knowing that he may have, to some degree, modeled Lolita after Sally is not likely to cause anyone to change their opinion of his work. I’m more concerned that the connection will sensationalize Sally’s story, instead of it scandalizing Vladimir Nabakov.

To that end, I wish the author would have written a straightforward account of Sally’s life, sans all the Nabakov parallels. Sure, her connection should have been mentioned, since it is a part of her life story, but I don’t know if it should have taken up so much space in a book about Sally’s horrifying ordeal, and the tragedy her life became.

It’s been a long time since I struggled with a book review, as I struggled with this one. I’m not quite as conflicted about it as I am about Lolita, but it is a book I have mixed feelings about.

Usually, in such cases, I straddle the fence with a middle of the road rating. However, I gave this one a bump up because of several factors. One, is that this is, to my knowledge, the only nonfictional account of Sally Horner's life, and the author did a great job with Sally's portion of the book, and because she did give me much food for thought about Lolita.

3.5 rounded up
Profile Image for emma.
1,872 reviews54.8k followers
November 9, 2020
To be honest, this feels like someone took, like, an English 201 essay and made it 300 pages long.

It's not true crime. It's not literary analysis. It's this weird kind of ill-marketed in-between thing and it's a huge bummer.

All the information is interesting, and Sally Horner really deserves to have her story told after Nabokov (that prick) took inspiration from her trauma and then spent his life denying it...but this ain't it.

Also, there are a lot of extrapolations and what seems to me like conclusions without sufficient evidence, considering this is nonfiction.

But my main takeaway from this is that Nabokov is AN ASSHOLE.

Bottom line: Upsetting on like 82 levels.


yes, reading Lolita was a deeply unpleasant and traumatic experience for me. why do you ask
Profile Image for Kelly (and the Book Boar).
2,487 reviews7,790 followers
October 25, 2018
Find all of my reviews at: http://52bookminimum.blogspot.com/

“Here’s how I imagine . . .”

Simply put, that’s my whole problem with The Real Lolita. This is a book that doesn’t have much book to it. There are few documents remaining to provide detail and the main players are all deceased. Heck, even the person who this is about is dead by the halfway point and my Kindle copy was wrapped up at 76%. The remainder of the story is full of quotes like the following . . .

“Here’s the point in the narrative where I would like to tell you everything that happened to Sally Horner after Frank La Salle spirited her away from Atlantic City to Baltimore, and the eight months they lived in the city, from August 1948 through April 1949. The trouble is, I didn’t find out all that much.”

As the author herself states . . .

“Inference will have to stand in for confidence. Imagination will have to fill in the rest.”

That just doesn’t cut it for me when it comes to a true crime novel. And the links between Nabokov’s and Horner’s tales are all based on presumptions as well. I mean, excluding the very upfront admission by Nabokov himself that Horner did inspire/breathe new life into the ongoing twenty-year project which was trying to give Humbert Humbert’s voice something to talk about. But the supposed symbolism and such were once again 100% speculation.

Like many other authors or students of literature, Weinman chooses to portray Nabokov as a bigger predator than the actual criminal himself. And like so many others, she has no proof behind any of her theories. I’ll happily admit Nabokov makes my hinky meter ping as well. His writing does tend to gravitate toward the same subject matter. But was he a pedophile or hebephile or ephebophile or simply fascinated with writing about the taboo? Most likely the latter.

It’s also abundantly clear how Weinman feels about Lolita - going so far as to reduce it to a “daring little sex novel.” She chooses to brush over the fact that this is a classic, subject matter notwithstanding - focusing on it selling a lot of copies rather than being a book entire literature courses are dedicated to studying. The baby is also sort of thrown out with the bathwater as fans are labeled as pervy wrongreaders who, for decades, were too stupid to realize Lolita was actually a victim and that in the present should simply keep their (and all other) copies firmly placed on bookshelves rather than encourage others to read at all, to which I say . . . . .

If you want to read about Sally Horner but aren’t lucky enough to have a public library like mine and share a similar beer budget which doesn't allow you to buy allllllll the books, I recommend skipping this one entirely and going for Rust and Stardust instead.
Profile Image for Krista.
712 reviews
May 13, 2018
(Note: Unbiased review in exchange for an ARC from Edelweiss.)

Robert Frost sees two paths while on a hike, and goes to his desk to write a most famous poem. Should we acknowledge the original influence of the paths, the direct connection between their existence and the poem, or do we think of the poem forever as separate from the reality?

That's facetious but it is a distillation of the idea here is at the heart of "The Real Lolita": Where do we see the reality, and to what extend should we credit it, in our works of art? In the book, the author works through two major storylines side-by-side, the creation of Nabokov's "Lolita" and the real-life story of poor Sally Horner, who was kidnapped and repeatedly raped by a man whose name is better lost to history. Throughout the book, Weinman challenges us to see Sally's story and Sally's reality, not the myth (and grotesque modern fantasy) of a supposedly "alluring" preteen girl. (I cringe from writing that, because as Weinman repeatedly notes, this is a story of child abuse, full stop, and there is nothing alluring whatsoever about it.) Weinman's argument extends to a metaphor alleging Nabokov (and his wife Vera) helped this process of erasing Sally Horner by their insistence on the purely invented nature of "Lolita," springing from his fully-formed without any major, massive contributions from the real-life case.

What's good about the book is that Weinman, as noted, is quite clear about the nature of the crimes here. She's an excellent researcher and her interviews, in particular, made me lean in, just because of the high quality of her "gets." She's also thought about contextual crimes against women and children, as stories of other crimes are peppered throughout the book, as well as modern parallels, considering the autobiographies of contemporary young women who were captured by such human vermin as Sally's abductor.

What's iffy, and what stops me from going beyond a simple "I liked it" is that the book seems to have a hard time coming together. While the book seems to start on the idea of simply giving Sally back her story, there's also an idea, stated about 3/4 of the way throughout the book, that "Lolita" would not have existed without Sally Horner's recovery, an argument that is later undermined when Weinman concedes Nabokov had a lengthy history of working on a stories regarding the sexual abuse of girls, a history that preceded Sally's abduction. At other moments, the book seems to shift back to claiming that Sally Horner's influence on the text hasn't been acknowledged. (Weinman notes that die-hard readers of "Lolita" don't remember Sally is mentioned in the text.) This feels off to me, because I (not a die-hard reader of "Lolita") knew the connection and even knew Nabokov had mentioned the case in the text. Perhaps the story here is that from the decades since the book was published, we have become more expressive about abuse and have fought back against narratives of shame, so that works discussing that connection would not be particularly surprising? I'm not sure, but I do know that every line emphasizing the need to prove the link between "Lolita" and Sally Horner just struck me as obvious, given Nabokov's specific use of her name in the book.

In addition, the book demonstrates a couple of leaps of logic that are just too far to go. For example, the author speculates that Sally's abductor put her in a Catholic school because Catholic schools knew how to cover things up (hinting at the priest sex abuse scandals.) Those revelations were decades away from Sally's lifetime, however, and so can't realistically have been in the abductor's head when he enrolled her in the Catholic school. While I have not researched the topic, it seems to me there are other speculative answers that could be offered without such a leap of logic. (Less need for government paperwork? Cheaper? Ability to start children off in school at different times of the school year? Gender segregation?)

To be clear: Normally, I found the author's argument and logic very sound, but moments like these made me wonder if she might be stretching her argument elsewhere.

Overall, "The Real Lolita" did make me think and certainly did impress on me the extraordinary bravery of the child, little Sally Horner, who dared to reach for help. While her life ended tragically short, I was left closing the book with the hope that her final days gave her the joy she'd been so long denied.

Profile Image for Bill Kerwin.
Author 1 book82k followers
June 6, 2020

Sarah Weinman’s The Real Lolita is perhaps unique in the annals of true crime because of the double mystery it explores. The first mystery: to discover the real girl behind a half-forgotten news story, the kidnapping in 1948 of eleven-year-old Sally Horner by fifty-year-old pedophile Frank La Salle and their subsequent twenty-one month odyssey from Camden, New Jersey to San Jose, California. The second mystery: to discover the relationship between Sally and her fictional counterpoint Lolita by sifting through the hints and evasions the writer left us in his notes and comments, and breaking through the barriers thrown up by his wife Vera, the fierce and jealous defender of Vladimir Nabokov and his legacy.

This is a clever and ingenious book, not least because little remains today of Sally Horner’s story (Sally avoided interviews at the time of her rescue, and she died two years later in a car crash at the age of fifteen). Author Sarah Weinman is, however, adept at including what might otherwise might seem irrelevancies (the habits and character of La Salle’s prosecutor Mitchell Cohen; the Nabokov’s cross country butterfly trip; the subsequent life of Sally’s rescuer Ruth Janisch, the memories of her daughter Rachel; and the sad account of the doomed musical Lolita, My Love—book by Lerner and Lowe of My Fair Lady fame, music by John “Goldfinger” Barry). Weinman has an astute sense of how much space to give to each of these tangential topics, and how to make them subordinate to her central theme: the recovery of the uniqueness of one little girl, her memory lost half a century ago in the pages of a masterpiece:
Sally Horner can’t be cast aside so easily. She must be remembered as more than a young girl forever changed by a middle-aged man’s crime of monstrous perversion. A girl who survived adversity, manipulation, and cross-country horror, only to be endied a chance to grow up. A girl immortalized, and forever trapped in the pages of a classic novel of satire and sadness, like a butterfly with wings damaged before ever having the chance to fly.
Profile Image for exorcismemily.
1,265 reviews338 followers
September 5, 2018
"Knowing about Sally Horner does not diminish Lolita's brilliance, or Nabokov's audacious inventiveness, but it does augment the horror he also captured in the novel."

I had not heard of Sally Horner's case prior to coming across The Real Lolita, so I was really looking forward to this book. I was captivated by the heartbreaking beginning of the book - Sally's story is truly tragic, and I was curious about what all happened.

Unfortunately, there is just not enough information about Sally to fill a book, even though the author did her best. This is the second true crime book I've read this year that really should not have become a book - in both of them, an absurd amount of filler was added in order to pad out the rest of the book.

Only about half of this book was even about Sally - so much of it was speculation & then details about Nabokov. Clearly Nabokov knew about Sally since he mentions her in Lolita, yet a fair amount of the book is spent trying to prove that Lolita is directly based on Sally's story & trying to find out just when Nabokov found out about her. It felt very unnecessary. I don't care when Nabokov found out about Sally because it was obvious that he did - the timing doesn't matter.

I also felt like part of the purpose of the book was to argue that Lolita is problematic. I really don't need someone else to tell me that, and I wouldn't have picked this book up if I knew so much time was going to be focused on Nabokov and Lolita. It ended up feeling like a college paper, which is definitely not what I was hoping for with this book. There was a lot of reaching, and even my final copy could have used more editing. This book could have been an awesome essay or article, but the real story was smothered by unnecessary details & speculation.
Profile Image for Darlene.
370 reviews133 followers
January 13, 2019
I listened to the audiobook version of this book, 'The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World', written by Sarah Weinman; the narration was performed by Cassandra Campbell. This is a difficult book for me to rate mainly because it was so ambitious, perhaps TOO ambitious. The aim of the book was twofold: it is part literary detective non-fiction and part true-crime. To me, the author was only successful in the true-crime aspect.

Sarah Weinman hypothesized that there was a link between Vladimir Nabokov's renowned and controversial book, 'Lolita' and an old kidnapping case from 1948 involving an 11-year-old girl from New Jersey. She attempted to make the case that not only was Nabokov inspired by this case but that the characters in his book, Humbert Humbert and Delores Haze, were based on the people in the real-life drama. One of her goals was to prove that despite repeated denials during his lifetime, Nabokov, who had been struggling to write 'Lolita' for decades, was finally able to complete the novel after reading news accounts of the kidnapping in New Jersey.

Sarah Weinman moves back and forth between the Nabokov story and the kidnapping.. attempting to weave together what she perceived as common threads between the novel 'Lolita' and the kidnapping case. She attempts to construct a timeline to demonstrate what Nabokov knew about the case and when exactly he knew it. Using information she gleaned from Nabokov's own research and notes, Ms. Weinman describes a frustrated writer who had been obsessed with the idea of an older man who becomes preoccupied with a pre-pubescent girl and becomes convinced that the girl is a 'nymphet' or a seductress who lures him into a sexual relationship. But Nabokov had been unable to write this story to his satisfaction. In fact, Nabokov had attempted to burn his unfinished manuscript twice but had been stopped by his wife Vera.

I admit that I have never read 'Lolita' and I don't feel a great urgency to do so. I felt that the aspects of this book dealing with whether or not Nabokov was influenced by the real-life kidnapping of a young girl and whether or not this crime gave him the push he needed to finish this novel was not especially interesting and seemed a bit irrelevant. Plus, I wasn't really convinced by the case Ms Weinman made. She needed to make a lot of logical leaps in her presentation of the facts. What I DID find compelling was the actual facts of the kidnapping case and it seemed to me that the book would have been riveting if she had just stayed with this story.

Sarah Weinman pieced together the kidnapping story by using legal documents, public records information and interviews with remaining family members. The story is perhaps more common today but when keeping the time period in mind, I found the case emotionally gripping. In 1948, Sally Horner was 11-years old and living with her mother in Camden, New Jersey. One day after school, on a dare from a group of girls she wanted to be part of, Sally stole a 5-cent notebook from a Woolworth's. Upon leaving the store, she was stopped by a man who climbed he was an FBI agent. He told her that he knew she had stolen the notebook. This man, Frank La Salle, was actually a convicted pedophile, who had recently been released from prison. He convinced Sally that she wouldn't be sent to reform school if she agreed to check in with him from time-to-time; but a few months later, when Sally was walking home from school, La Salle approached her again... telling her that she needed to accompany him to Atlantic City... on government orders. She was then ordered to tell her mother that she had been invited to accompany the families of a couple of school friends to the shore for a vacation. Frightened, Sally did as she was told and her mother granted permission.

For much of the next two years, Frank La Salle (using assumed names) traveled to various places across the country... Maryland, Texas and California.. with Sally as his frightened and unwilling companion. According to Ms. Weinman's research, La Salle and Sally Horner lived quietly as father and daughter, although documents show that La Salle began sexually assaulting Sally soon after he kidnapped her.

Eventually, Sally was rescued from her nightmarish situation... mainly due to the fact that a suspicious neighbor in San Jose, California was persistent in questioning Sally about her relationship with her 'father' until finally Sally had confessed the entire ordeal. I wish that I could say that this story ended happily for Sally but that's not what happened. You'll need to read the book to find out...

What broke my heart and what I found most compelling about Sally Horner's story was the way in which she was treated by her community and to some extent, her family after her return to New Jersey. I had to keep reminding myself that this crime occurred in a different time. It was 1950 that her ordeal ended, after all. Attitudes were different toward victims at that time... but is that really true? A case could be made that victims are still often blamed for their victimization. Sally returned to a community that looked upon her with suspicion. She was stigmatized by her classmates at school. She was treated as if what had happened to her had somehow been her fault... even though no one ever really talked about it. Even her own mother, upon hearing that her daughter had been found in California, remarked... "Whatever she has done, I can forgive her."

I'm not sure why Sarah Weinman chose to write this book in the way that she did. 2018 marked the 60th anniversary of the publication of Nabokov's 'Lolita' so I suppose the idea that Nabokov, who had been following the Sally Horner case in the media and then published a novel which was so similar to the events of the crime, may have seemed like a parallel that was just too good to resist. Or perhaps Sarah Weinman had another kind of message. The sad truth about people like Frank La Salle (or even Humbert Humbert).... the monsters in our society... is that on the outside, they do not often make their monstrous intentions visible. Often they appear normal, some even charismatic, charming and manipulative and some are even the very authority figures which we mistakenly teach our children to trust and respect. So perhaps in giving Sally Horner a voice, THESE were the truths Sarah Weinman ultimately hoped to impart to her readers.
Profile Image for ❤️.
85 reviews149 followers
December 27, 2022
Thoroughly researched and incredibly readable. I really enjoyed reading this book, and I find it interesting how divisive it seems to be. Some people (particularly those who seem to really love Lolita and admire Vladimir Nabokov as a writer) even seem rather angry at Sarah Weinman for having written it. I've always loved Lolita myself, and I've come away from this book feeling much differently than a lot of people have.

Some of the biggest complaints about this book that I've noticed are:

1 - Sarah Weinman thinks we as readers are too stupid to understand Lolita.
I didn't feel that's what she tried to convey at all. The entire point of her book is to discuss Lolita in regards to Sally Horner's life. It would be hard not to discuss what Nabokov's intentions were for Lolita and what Lolita means in a book such as this.

2 - Sarah Weinman thinks Vladimir Nabokov is a dirty old man who exploited Sally Horner.
Again, I never got the impression while reading this that she ever insinuated that Nabokov was a pervert, or a pedophile, or anything of the sort. In fact, she clearly references numerous times where his inspirations for Lolita came from - Sally Horner's ordeal included - and the various men whose personalities/conversations gave insight to Nabokov as he built the character of Humbert Humbert. She never connects Humbert Humbert's thoughts/actions as ever having been Nabokov's.

3 - This book was too long; the story here didn't warrant an entire book, and the parts about Sally Horner were too short.
I'm pretty sure that a few years ago this book did originally start out as an article. As Sarah Weinman researched more, she decided to dedicate an entire book to it. As for there not being enough on Sally Horner herself - I'd imagine it'd be pretty hard to write a huge book on Sally considering she only lived to be fifteen years old. This book is barely 250 pages (there is a blank page before every new chapter, and photos displayed on several pages throughout that take up most of the pages they are on), so I would hardly consider it too long for a "limited" story. It's bizarre to me that a book can be both too long and too short at the same time to some readers.

I'm definitely feeling like, as someone who really appreciated this book, that I need to defend it a bit, considering the negative reviews I'm seeing of it. As I said, Lolita is one of my favourite books. Even though I first read it in my early teens it was easy for me to see Humbert Humbert as he was meant to be seen and Lolita as she's meant to be seen. I thought Vladimir Nabokov did a really clever thing in how he portrayed the story of Lolita and I love all the discussion surrounding it to this day. It was never romantic or sexy or exciting to me, and it grosses me out to think of the readers of Lolita who do romanticize it. They clearly have missed the point that Nabokov beautifully portrayed in this most ugly and tragic story. I don't feel as though Sarah Weinman set out to diminish Nabokov's genius with writing this book and connecting Sally Horner to the story of Lolita. It was clear to me this was meant to tell Sally's story, to connect the dots, all while showing how the book was developed over many years and the parallels between Sally and Lolita. And I loved it. Knowing about Sally Horner now doesn't diminish my love of the book Lolita or change my views in a negative way toward Vladimir Nabokov for having written it. The whole thing is tragic on Sally's end, fascinating and curious on Nabokov's end, and extremely readable the entire time.

Sarah Weinman is compassionate in her writing. She really handled telling Sally's short life story with tremendous care and that is something I'd much rather have with someone writing a true crime book. Some true crime writers/journalists couldn't care less about the person at the heart of their book and it shows.

A must read, in my opinion, for those who love Lolita, or have an interest in true crime - and especially both.
Profile Image for Scott.
1,801 reviews131 followers
January 20, 2019
With The Real Lolita author Weinman has dueling narratives - 1.) detailing the abduction of juvenile Sally Horner in 1948 by a career criminal / sex offender and the incident's aftermath and 2.) the genesis for Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov's runaway but controversial best-seller Lolita, which possibly drew inspiration from the Horner case, that was released about ten years later.

I found the 'true crime' segments more compelling. Though Weinman notes that some information has simply been lost to time 70 years later, she appears to have done copious research and effectively portrays many of the cast of real-life characters - Horner's widowed mother, the assigned police investigator, the county prosecutor, and many others - who have long since passed away. Also, the sociological-history segments - such as describing how Camden, New Jersey began a slide toward being a blighted city not long after this and other heinous crimes (like the terrifying "Walk of Death" massacre in 1949, which I had never heard of before) - were also fascinating in a sad way.

However, that's not to say the other half is boring. The chapters about Nabokov working on his book actually started getting much more interesting as that thread progressed, and culminated with a brief examination on how the term 'Lolita' came to mean a teenage or underage seductress. In reality, it's understandably (and obviously) argued, Horner and her fictional counterpart were victims of abuse.
Profile Image for Heather.
Author 57 books2,013 followers
September 13, 2018
A must read for anyone who has ever thought about Lolita. It is a disturbing read in many ways. It examines Lolita as the protagonist of Nabokov’s novel and brings her story to the forefront, absent of HH’s malicious dandification of abuse, considering her heroism and agency. It is also a demand for accountability of the ways that young girls, in life and in fiction, are stripped of their own narratives. It is also amazing how Lolita, the character haunts me. Nabokov considered her and not HH one of his greatest characters. Weinman challenges the way readers have been reading Lolita for decades. By confronting us with the real life details of the Sally Horner case, readers can never read Nabokov’s novel in the same way.
Profile Image for Anita Pomerantz.
661 reviews125 followers
December 25, 2018
I loved the idea of this book, but the execution fell a little flat. Weinman tells the true crime story of Sally Horner's kidnapping and then attempts to prove how Vladimir Nabokov used it as inspiration for the story of Lolita. If you haven't read Lolita, I think this book will be a hard one to appreciate. If you have, you may find the evidence for his reliance on the Sally Horner story to be a little forced. Realistically, pedophilia is not some new phenomenon, and the Horner story is more unique because it was a kidnapping than because a small, powerless girl didn't tell anyone.

Originally, this book began as a magazine article, and I think that was probably the best format for it. However, the true crime story of Sally is quite interesting (and horrifying), and those who like true crime AND who have read Lolita will probably find this book to be thought provoking if not especially compelling.
Profile Image for Rachel.
Author 1 book25 followers
July 22, 2018
As a true crime writer, I loved how Sarah Weinman unearthed a story that inspired so much prurience without engaging in it herself; her Sally Horner is not a footnote or a parenthetical or a caricature of pigtails and lollipops. She is a real girl, the subject rather than the object.

Great book, gonna have to read Lolita again for the first time since.... college?
Profile Image for Susan Albert.
Author 96 books2,244 followers
August 23, 2019
Excellent. Should be required reading for any serious reader of Nabokov's Lolita.

Weinman's book is a detailed source study of the real-life materials available to Nabokov when he was writing the novel. It is also a study of the tragic kidnapping and repeated rapes of Sally Horner, the young girl whose story Nabokov "strip-mined to produce the bones of Lolita." And then concealed, in an attempt to enhance his reputation as a literary genius whose imaginative work was created sui generis, independent of real world events.

Weinman also helpfully surveys (for those who don't know it) the history of Lolita's publication. Originally rejected by American publishers because of its scatological content, then published by a smutty European publisher and promptly banned in France, the book brought its scandalous reputation with it when it was finally (1958) published in America. All of this furor, while it increased sales and burnished Nabokov's literary reputation, encouraged readers (and later adapters) to badly misinterpret the book. "Sixty years on," Weinman writers, "many readers still don’t see through Humbert Humbert’s vile perversions, and still blame Dolores Haze for her behavior, as if she had the will to resist, and chose not to."

Personally, I have often wondered how far this misreading is a result of the author's ill-concealed affection for his witty, urbane character, inviting us to understand and even empathize with Humbert Humbert's compulsion. Weinman points out that Lolita isn't Nabokov's first effort to write about an older man’s sexual desire for a preteen girl. She reviews his earlier writings (some in Russian), pointing out that this was a persistent theme to which he returned throughout his career. Given this, she might have more explicitly linked Nabokov to his point-of-view character, Humbert Humbert. That is, she could have asked to what extent Nabokov reveals parts of himself through his character. But that's another subject entirely, and Weinman wisely skirts it.

The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World is fascinating, revelatory, and readable. Kudos to Sarah Weinman for focusing a spotlight on Sally Horner, whose full story, brief as it is, begs to be told. For me, the book takes on a greater poignancy for appearing in the era of #MeToo, when the likes of Jerry Epstein and his friends are on full view in American courtrooms and in American politics.

The paperback edition of this book will be published in the U.S. on September 10, 2019. Weinman says it will include an afterword with information that came in a few weeks before the book’s hardcover publication. I'll be among the first to read it.
Profile Image for Stacey.
890 reviews161 followers
November 26, 2019
I finished this book quite a while ago. I'm not sure why I didn't like it as much as I thought I would, but I have a few guesses. 1) I read it too soon after I finished the fictional story about Sally Horner, Rust & Stardust by T. Greenwood. 2) Too much comparison with Lolita that I felt took away from the story of Sally. 3) It felt meandering at times like she had an idea and added it in, but it didn't add to the story of Sally. It was just extra facts.

I gave it 3 stars because I appreciate all the research that went into this book and I know Nobokov denies that Lolita is based on Sally Horner, but I don't buy it and Weinman made a good case that made me think about all the coincidences. It's a tragic story and I'm glad that she's being remembered as a little girl that was kidnapped, not a little girl that tempted a grown man.
Profile Image for Susan Grodsky.
487 reviews2 followers
September 6, 2018
I haven't finished this book, but since Goodreads won't let me write my review until I've marked the book as finished, I will do so.

I'm not abandoning this book. I am interested enough to read to the last page. But I'll be skimming rather than reading.

I read this book for the JCC book festival. I will recommend that we not include it. It's not a terrible book, but the only Jewish content is that the author is Jewish. That's not enough when the book itself is only mediocre.

Here's what I'd like to say to the author.

Sarah, you found a really interesting topic. Everyone knows "Lolita", but few people know that this true crime story inspired the author, Vladimir Nabokov.

But admit it, Sarah. You had enough information for a magazine article. Stretching it out to book-length means padding. We don't need to know the frustrations you encountered researching this under-documented event. We don't need to know your speculations about Sarah's state of mind as you walked her Baltimore neighborhood. And we would appreciate more muscular, more evocative writing. Your meandering narrative is worsened by your awkward style. By sentences like this: "That his date, a man with whom he'd been in the midst of weeks long affair, stood him up was indignity enough."
Profile Image for Lisa.
Author 43 books7,350 followers
June 15, 2018
Scored this beauty at BookExpo from the super talented Sarah Weinman. Picked it up and could not put it down. Absolutely riveting.
Profile Image for Krystin | TheF**kingTwist.
498 reviews1,761 followers
February 9, 2023
Book Blog | Bookstagram

Maybe if I had read Lolita I would have connected with this more, but I picked this up purely as a true-crime reader… That was a mistake. This “true-crime investigation” book is held together by constant conjecture and wishful thinking.

The author even writes, “Inference will have to stand in for confidence. Imagination will have to fill in the rest.”

Okay, no thanks.

This is a true-crime telling that doesn’t really have very much to tell. It’s like someone stretched out a personal essay to 300-pages. It feels like mostly filler and a lot of nothing.

Once you learn about the publication of Lolita, the to-do surrounding the moral questions it raises and how the movie production went down, there isn’t much else to speak on. And as someone with no experience with the fiction novel by Nabokov, this was all new information but not really interesting to me.

The reason I even picked this up – the case of Sally Horner’s disappearance – doesn’t get a lot of page time because there isn’t much to tell. All the players are dead and the case files are few and far between. I mean, even Sally Horner dies halfway through the book (unrelated to her kidnapping.) The author seems to say a version of, “I’d love to tell you about this, but I couldn’t find any information” way too many times than should be allowed.

Most of this book is made up of presumptions, conjecture and wishing really hard that connections exist where they don’t outside of Nabokov saying one time that Sally Horner inspired him. But is that even true? No one can even tell you that much. It comes across like the whole point of this book was to argue that Nabokov is a creepy asshole who wrote a problematic book. I don’t know why that opinion needs to be turned into a book?

This would have been better titled, “My Biased Essay on Nabokov and A Criminal Case I Can’t Find Any Information On.”

Badly researched, biased/unfair and grasping. Also a case of me being the wrong reader for this full topic.

The vibe for this one:

⭐½ | 1.5 stars rounded up
Profile Image for Rachel Jackson.
Author 2 books20 followers
November 21, 2020
It seems like once every few years some writer/researcher out there proposes a newfangled idea about Vladimir Nabokov's books or writing process or political history or some other such thing, and they feel compelled for some reason to write about it extensively in a book that they tout as never-before-seen-research, or all-new-information, or Nabokov's-secret-life. After a couple of those books emerged within the last decade, now there is The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman, another pathetic attempt to create some kind of juicy gossip and exclusive tabloid-like stories out of Nabokov's life.

Weinman chronicles the story of Sally Horner, a young girl who is abducted and whisked around the country by a much older man, just in the way Humbert Humbert carts Lolita around the country in Nabokov's most famous book Lolita. From that alone, Weinman seems to think Nabokov drew all his inspiration for Lolita from Sally Horner's sad story, and that he kept it a secret because he didn't want anyone to know that's where his inspiration came from.

She conveniently addresses but immediately dismisses Nabokov's own words, stating that Nabokov "loathed people scavenging for biographical details that would explain his work"—and yet she chooses to go back on his own words and do that kind of obnoxious, intrusive scavenging herself. (I can just hear Vladimir, Vera, and Dmitri all commenting different things, full of snark and snarl, about Weinman's idiocy in this regard. It kind of brings me joy to imagine.) She disrespects Nabokov's own words and values her own over his, despite him being one of the subjects of this book. I've no doubt that Nabokov knew about Sally Horner—and indeed, he had a notecard that Weinman presents in this book mentioning her name and her death in his own handwriting. But to say that Lolita was so fully dependent on Sally's story to even exist at all is pure speculation and something Weinman wants to be true to suit her own purposes of having a book to draw people in. Proposing the idea is one thing; adequately backing it up is entirely different.

Indeed, at one point of the book, when struggling to find evidence or documentation of any kind, Weinman says: "Absence is as telling as substance. Inference will have to stand in for confidence. Imagination will have to fill in the rest." What a terrible philosophy for a nonfiction writer to adopt. Though it may be a part of my journalistic background speaking, I cannot fathom for the life of me how anyone would think such a perspective would result in quality truth-telling and documentation of any story, let a lone one full of sensitivity and still shrouded in mystery. Right then Weinman gives herself permission to write whatever the hell she wants even if she speculates on it all and has no substance to back it up. As long as it satisfies your imagination, that's all that matters, right?

Furthermore, many of Weinman's facts about Nabokov and his family are either flat-out wrong or greatly exaggerated, including his "abandoning" of the Russian language and an affair she turns into tabloid gossip. She constantly uses the wrong words in places that don't make sense; her sentences are either fragmented or short and choppy, which happens all too frequently; the book's structure is poorly organized and confusing as she jumps back and forth from narrative to narrative, timeline to timeline, omitting important details early on but bringing them up casually later; she stretches inferences and jumps to conclusions about symbolism in Lolita that Nabokov most likely did not create (i.e. telephones being an escape method, rather than merely a popular communication method) and certainly would have abhorred had he known Weinman was asserting such things; and her self-insertions are downright annoying, cocky and intrusive when she tells about her struggles to find research and her reputation as a true crime writer.

I clearly harbor quite a possessiveness over works that concern Vladimir Nabokov, but part of that is because as I have read more about him I've come to realize how misunderstood he was. He may have given off certain impressions to the public, yes, but so do we all, and Nabokov the human being is different than Nabokov the writer. Weinman seems to fall into a similar trap, that underage girls were his life and they shaped both his personal and professional life. Naturally, she claims, he would have known all about Sally Horner and tried sneakily to include her story within his. It's a shame that Sally's story was forgotten, which is one of the few points I can agree with Weinman on, but that doesn't mean people nowadays should cash in on the sensationalism of either Sally Horner's story of Lolita just because something might have a potential unproven connection. Tthere are already plenty of biographies on Nabokov, and Weinman added nothing to any information about his life or his writing. She should have solely written a book about Sally Horner and not tried to tie in Vladimir Nabokov in some pretty feeble ways.
Profile Image for Wanda Pedersen.
1,929 reviews386 followers
September 5, 2019
I read this book to fill the Truly Terrifying square of my 2019 Halloween Bingo Card.

I heard the author of The Real Lolita interviewed on the radio and was immediately intrigued. I’ve read true crime. I’ve read biography and books seeking to trace an author’s process. But this is the first book I’ve read that really combines the two and does so effectively.

When I think about Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, I think about a work of fiction. But where did Nabokov get his idea from? It turns out that this true crime story may have provided the final details and framework for this recognized classic of fiction. Weinman has spent time in the author’s archives and has been able to connect the dots in a most convincing way.

But the author doesn’t forget the real girl--Sally Horner--and her awful predicament. Her separation from her family by an unscrupulous man and his sexual abuse of this extremely young girl. I was struck by how differently we look at society and children now--it wouldn’t be likely nowadays that a mother would send her daughter off with a person she didn’t know. It was a more trusting age, trusting that people had good intentions towards others. And yet, even in our more suspicious times, young girls still get kidnapped. Witness first person accounts like Elizabeth Smart’s My Story and non-fiction like Captive: One House, Three Women and Ten Years in Hell by Allan Hall. Indeed, the author read some of these accounts to assess what Sally’s life with her abductor might have been like.

It seems that Nabokov was interested in this theme long before the Sally Horner disappearance, but her situation seems to have resonated with him somehow. What he did was fictionalize the whole experience from Humbert Humbert’s perspective and give us an amazingly literate look at the criminal’s point of view. His wife’s notes, however, indicate that he wanted the audience to recognize the plight of Lolita in the fraudulent worldview of Humbert.

I haven’t yet read Lolita and I wondered whether I actually would, but this book makes me think that I must give it a try. Thank you, Ms. Weinman, for giving me a reason for attempting what is acknowledged to be a great novel.
Profile Image for Myrna.
716 reviews
October 17, 2018
After Reading Rust and Stardust, I looked for information about the real Sally Horner only to find very few details. Then, with perfect timing, this book came out. In this book, Weinman, drew from extensive research: interviews, in-person visits to the places that Horner lived, reportings on the kidnapping, rescue, and trial, court documents, and Nabokov’s papers. The author did throw in some some logical speculation in a few spots, though. Unfortunately, only half the book is about Sally. I can see why - many of the people and places are gone now. The other half is about Nabokov’s writing process, his life, and the parallels of his book to Sally’s tragic ordeal although he denied that Lolita was inspired by the case. I think it’s a good read for anyone that has thought or read Lolita or Rust and Stardust. I’ve never personally read Lolita but plan to do so in the near future. I’m glad the victim, Sally, is being remembered 60+ years later as “it is the story of so many girls and women, not just in America, but everywhere.” 3.5★s
Profile Image for Rachel (TheShadesofOrange).
2,215 reviews3,226 followers
August 7, 2022
4.0 stars
After reading and loving Lolita, I felt compelled to learn about the real life inspiration. This book was sobering because it details real life abuse and pedophilia. It really takes away the "beauty" of Lolita. I am glad that this book shared light on the real life victim. Also I appreciated the literary discussion of Lolita, from the writing process to the reaction of readers. If you love Lolita, I think this is a very important follow up.
Profile Image for Madara.
294 reviews53 followers
July 5, 2020
Wow... Makes me want to reread Lolita and read some of the other Nabokov's books.
Profile Image for Dona.
332 reviews15 followers
May 2, 2020
I've always taken issue with Nabokov's Lolita. Granted, I read it almost thirty years ago, when I was 23--and worked with a mostly male staff at a book store in Harvard Square. Everyone seemed to "get it" but me. Not wanting to look stupid--or worse, provincial--I kept (mostly) quiet. Weinman's book has helped me to understand that perhaps I was actually the only person on my shift who "got it." By uncovering conclusive links between the kidnapping case of Sally Horner in 1948 and Nabokov's creative design for his novel, Weinman illuminates not only the cultural misreading of the novel but also the nature of obsession and compulsion. She writes, "Crime stories grapple with what causes people to topple over from sanity to madness, from decency to psychopathy, from love to rage. They ignite within me the twinned sense of obsession and compulsion. If these feelings persist, I know the story is mine to tell." Interestingly, some of the evidence she has uncovered indicates that Nabokov's artistic obsession with the dark subject matter in Lolita was a result of his personal childhood encounter on the lap of a pedophilic uncle. But most importantly, Weinman tells the story of long forgotten Sally Horner, the real person whose unjust victimization and remarkable survival instincts provided the final creative puzzle pieces to bring Lolita to fruition. Weinman argues that Nabokov's desire to shroud his creative process in mystery, in part, resulted in his wildly successful novel eclipsing Sally Horner's story and identity. In The Real Lolita, Weinman attempts to reverse some of this irony.
Profile Image for Sarah.
205 reviews23 followers
July 9, 2018
It’s probably been 20 years since I read Lolita and I remember very little about it; it’s one of those things I keep feeling I should reread but am really not quite sure if I can stomach it.

This is true-crime-meets-literary-criticism, exploring the connections between the real-life kidnapping of Sally Horner in the late 1940s and Nabokov’s most famous work. Nabokov never admitted to basing his novel on any story in particular (and indeed, he was working on the novel before learning of Horner’s abduction) but the author makes a compelling case that Horner’s kidnapping by pedophile Frank LaSalle heavily influenced the book.

The writing is slightly uneven and the author veers into somewhat Pattersonian sentence fragments from time to time, which always puts me off a little, but overall this is a well-written and clearly well-researched book that kept me turning pages.

ARC received from publisher at Book Expo.
Profile Image for SherryRose.
70 reviews1 follower
November 6, 2018
I abandoned this. It veers off the actual case constantly. The author talks about other cases of kidnappings and murders from that era that have nothing to do with Sally Horner. She speculated on why LaSalle sent her to Catholic school and how Sally might have prayed. She tries to get into the thoughts of the kidnapper and the victim which is impossible. It’s supposed to be a non fiction book but parts of it feel like fiction. I was very annoyed with her getting on the soap box about the Catholic Church. It was out of place. Rant about the Catholic Church in another book but in this one it’s out of place. She then talked about a gay teen which had nothing to do with Sally Horner and how hard it was to be gay back then. More soapbox chatter. Again, if you want to write about what it was like to be gay in the 50s or 60s, write a different book. The book is very scattered and off point. You almost forget what it was about in the first place. I gave up.
Profile Image for sarah.
389 reviews8 followers
January 10, 2019
I don’t understand why this book has so many negavtive reviews on this site. I get that the author was unfortunately unable to dig up a lot of new information about Sally Horner’s tragically short life but I was fascinated by all of the other information about the other people who played roles in both her life and in her hometown’s history. It’s been a really long time since a nonfiction book actually held my attention from beginning to end but I basically finished this in two sittings, I couldn’t stop listening.
Profile Image for Frank.
1,931 reviews20 followers
December 4, 2022
This book tells the story of a young 11-year-old girl named Sally Horner who was kidnapped in 1948 and held captive for almost two years by a sexual abuser. Weinman also makes the case that Vladimir Nabokov used this real life story to flesh out his novel Lolita which he spent years writing. The book alternates between the story of Sally and the life of Nabokov as he travels across America collecting butterflies with his wife and writing notes on note cards that will eventually become the basis for his novel about a pedophile and his obsessions. Nabokov actually mentions the Sally Horner case in Lolita but he always denied that the case influenced him in writing the novel. Weinman makes a pretty good case to prove otherwise and shows many parallels between the Horner abduction and the novel.

Sally Horner was a very tragic figure who was abducted at age eleven and sexually abused by her abductor for nearly two years before she was able to call her mother and eventually be rescued by the police and FBI. She was taken in New Jersey, spent time in Philadelphia and Texas before winding up in a trailer park in San Jose, California. Her family thought she was probably dead but her mother always held out hope. But then after her rescue and seeming to adapt back to her real life, she is tragically killed in a car accident two years later. Her abductor confessed to the crime and died in prison. So did Nabokov base his novel on this true-life story? Well, he had been working on his novel well before the abduction took place but he may have used the story to finish the novel. But at this point in time, does anyone really care?

Overall, I found the story of Horner to be tragic and disturbing. But her story concluded about half way through the book. I kind of felt like Weinman padded the story with other unrelated events to make what was originally a magazine article into a full length book. Only a very mild recommendation for this one.
Profile Image for Terri.
276 reviews
February 5, 2021
Vladmir Nabokov, was pathologically private so when he wrote his famous novel "Lolita," he did not credit the crime news story of the day, as one of the sources for his novel. This news story is sadly all to familiar to the current young generation but back in the 1940's, they did not completely understand pedophiles and their scheming methods. Poor and fatherless, Sally Horner didn't have a chance when the child molester Frank LaSalle kidnapped her in 1948. Author Sarah Weinman has carefully constructed Sally's ordeal and the aftermath with meticulous research. I admire the full extent of her effort and appreciate how hard she must have worked.
I read "Lolita" years ago and thought it was brilliant. The writer Nabokov who was quite a character obviously had some issues to work out and did it through his writings. I am curious to re-read the novel again after reading this book. I think for true crime readers, this book will be quite interesting. Four stars.
Profile Image for Nancy Regan.
38 reviews43 followers
December 6, 2019
Weinman's single-minded devotion to proving that Sally Horner and her real-life abductor "Frank La Salle" were the inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov to finish Lolita seems to me to be beside the point. Whether the fictional coincided with the real or was derived from it, the two unreliable narrators and their gaslighting of their child victims are still relevant examples of the vicious pastime of victim-blaming. The minor thread of Nabokov's life in Ithaca, New York, which he left only ten years before I moved there, was engaging to me as well. This would appeal to readers of Stacy Schiff's Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov).
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