My Dark Vanessa
Author: Kate Elizabeth Russell
Genre: General Fiction, Contemporary, Adult
Publication Date: March 10, 2020
Publisher: William Morrow
TRIGGER WARNING: rape, grooming, emotional abuse/manipulation, substance use, suicide
Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.
2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.
2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?
Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of Room, My Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.
I had a vague idea of what the book was about, but I honestly had no idea what I was getting into when I started reading. It’s an incredibly difficult read, emotionally. The story starts in Vanessa’s present, when Jacob Strane is facing accusations of sexual abuse from a former student. She’s forced to revisit her past through a new lens, and reexamine whether she was a victim or a willing participant. As an adult reading the story, it seems like an easy question to answer — whether she was willing or not, a 15 year old isn’t capable of giving consent, at least legally.
As the story reveals more of Vanessa’s past, the picture becomes cloudier. But what does become clearer is how unhealthy the situation was, and how deeply it affects Vanessa at the time and throughout her life. The story jumps between the past and present, but in a coherent way, and it slowly reveals how this relationship has overflowed into all areas of her life, and created damage that she isn’t even be aware of.
“A normal girl wouldn’t have reacted that way. There is something dark about me, something that’s always been there.”
This book reads like a memoir that could have been written by someone you know. There’s such a strong, introspective feel to it, but at the same time, it’s like Vanessa misses an entire part of her own story because she has been manipulated for so long and doesn’t even realize it.
Vanessa has her strengths and her flaws, but she mainly just gets to be herself in this story. Her journey isn’t an easy one, and it definitely isn’t an easy one to read, but I think it’s a powerful story (disturbing as it is).