Weinman is clear: she does not want to diminish the achievement of Lolita but rather “to augment the horror he also captured in the novel”. In this she succeeds well, and her compassionate account reveals the “darkness of real life” behind the novel. She allows Sally, like one of Nabokov’s trapped butterflies, to “emerge from the cage of both fiction and fact, ready to fly free”.
The Real Lolita is, by any measure, a unique and very peculiar book... Weinman is at her absolute best when playing detective and piecing together this tragic tale in all its sordid detail. ‘I tell crime stories for a living,’ she writes. ‘They ignite within me the twinned sense of obsession and compulsion. If these feelings persist, I know the story is mine to tell.’ She makes this one hers: the book contains twists and near misses and bit-part players, everything you might expect from a true-crime story, startlingly and simply told... In the end, The Real Lolita succeeds, like so much true-crime writing, and indeed like so much literary criticism, because its author shares just a little of the disturbing and obsessive compulsions of some of the persons discussed...The value of The Real Lolita lies precisely in the real... Oddly, in this case, it’s not the true story that is irrelevant: it’s Nabokov.
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. When Sally's mother was told her daughter had been found alive in a California trailer park, she reacted by saying: "Whatever she has done, I can forgive her." Upon her return to school, Sally was ostracised; the boys "looked at her as a total whore," a friend told Weinman.
Simultaneous with Sally's story, Weinman also traces Nabokov's decades-long wrestling process with the novel that would make his reputation.
While it remains unclear exactly when Nabokov first heard of Sally's ordeal, a "Lolita index card" - one of many on which he scrawled notes for his novel-in-progress - attests to the fact that he knew of her death in the summer of 1952. For, in another twist of fate, Sally was killed in a car crash just two years after her deliverance from Frank La Salle...In The Real Lolita, 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.
Weinman’s reconstruction of Sally’s case is long on tangential detail (the mass shooting in 1949 that marked the decline in Camden’s civic values, the library that Sally might have visited during her enforced stay in Baltimore because she “loved to read”), but short on any evidence of the connection between the real-life story and Nabokov’s creation