My Dark Vanessa
by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Length: 384 Pages
Release date: March 10, 2020
Publisher: William Morrow
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.
My Dark Vanessa successfully walks a very delicate balance, managing to fully embody the mind of a teenage girl romanticizing her relationship with a grown man without straying into the territory of the narrative itself endorsing that mindset. Vanessa, like most 15-year-olds, believes herself to be wise beyond her years. The novel, which takes place in two timelines 17 years apart, delves into Vanessa’s experience with her teacher while she was still in the thick of it, as well as her much more complicated feelings about it years down the line.
I can imagine that a lot of readers will find Vanessa difficult to love, and I honestly think this is a testament to how well she is written. This is such a raw exploration of the ways trauma can impact a person, and that’s not always easy to look at. Spiraling into depression can leave people dealing with substance abuse, feeling too emotionally drained to do something as simple as washing the dishes, and lashing out at people who don’t deserve it. Vanessa is defensive and angry and messy, and she has every right to be these things. If she’d grown up without any of these qualities, it may have been a feel-good story about overcoming adversity, but it would not have felt real.
The incorporation of the #metoo movement could have easily felt like a cheap attempt to make the novel feel timely, but it was incorporated into the book so extremely well and brought up uncomfortable questions about speaking up. In the face of a worldwide movement bringing down predators like Harvey Weinstein, what does this mean for victims who cannot or will not speak up, especially for those who live with the knowledge that the person who victimized them went on to do it to others? Do we place an unfair sense of culpability on the shoulders of women and girls dealing with the aftermath of a trauma?
My Dark Vanessa is such a solid exploration of all the nuance that can come with topics as sensitive as consent, agency, and sexual assault. Please be aware, however, this can be an extremely difficult book to read. Content warning for graphic descriptions of sexual abuse.
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