I browsed through Lolita when I was much younger, looking for the good parts. I was seriously disappointed. When I was older, I started it a few times but very quickly lost interest. Now I’ve finally read what many consider to be one of the best novels of the 20th century, maybe even the best.
For the most part, I wasn’t that impressed. Most of the novel details Humbert’s obsessive fascination with his young step-daughter. Nabokov engages in lots of entertaining word-play and makes fun of the American cultural scene, but it’s claustrophobic being locked up in Humbert’s fevered brain. Lolita’s body is present, but as a character she is pretty much a cipher.
That’s part of Nabokov’s purpose, of course. At the end of the novel, Humbert admits to himself that he’s stolen her childhood. He hasn’t allowed her to be a person. Lolita (the character) finally emerges when Humbert meets her a few years later, after she’s run away and started her own life. That’s when Lolita (the novel) at last delivers some emotional impact. It’s terribly sad to meet someone you still love who doesn’t love you — and in this case never did, for good reason.
Postscript: Coincidentally, I just came upon an article about Nabokov, in which the author suggests that Humbert’s expression of guilt regarding Lolita’s stolen childhood is merely a device to gain the reader’s sympathy (Lolita is supposedly written by Humbert as a confession after he’s arrested). That could be, but I found his words convincing as a reaction to the sadness of meeting Lolita again and the memories it evoked.