Thursday, March 5, 2020

REVIEW: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Title: My Dark Vanessa
Author: Kate Elizabeth Russell
Genre: Adult Contemporary 
Publisher: William Morrow
Release Date: March 10, 2020
Acquired: Egalley approved via Edelweiss
Goodreads: ADD

Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naive 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 victim hood. 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.

God this was uncomfortable to read, but when I was done, I kept going back to the last page, willing more words to appear. I didn't want to be done with Vanessa's story; call me a sadist but I was addicted to her troubled mind. If that's not the mark of an extraordinary book, then clearly I'm not cut out for this reader life. I feel ill-equipped to review a book as intentionally controversial as this, but I will try my most intellectual best.

It's 2000: 15-year-old Vanessa begged her parents to be enrolled at Browick boarding school. Intelligent past her years, and self-admittedly dark of mind and tortured of soul, Vanessa spends her days separate from her peers and generally withdrawn from the outside world. Timidly at first, and then all at once, she begins attracting attention from her 42-year-old English teacher Jacob Strane (Mr. Strane). What unfolds from this point forth is hard is digest, and even harder to write about.

It's 2017: 32-year-old Vanessa is in denial, convinced that the 'love story' she shared with Strane is so far removed from the accusations that have surfaced about him. A number of women are claiming that Strane sexually abused them during their own years at Browick, and one in particular, Taylor Birch, is using social media as her megaphone and has asked Vanessa to join her. Out of misplaced loyalty, and her own rose-coloured memories, Vanessa is adamant on avoiding the media frenzy, and the requests to speak out about a moment in her life where she felt like anything but the 'victim'.

I've never read Lolita, I'm not certain that I'm at a place in my life where I can appreciate that book for its art and ignore my repulsion for its subject matter. My Dark Vanessa was its safe reverse, in the sense that it was from the perspective of a seemingly consenting "nymphet", and while I was still wholly taken aback at times, I read it with a compulsion that not many books before it has elicited. I was propelled forward by a desperate need to watch Vanessa untangle what was surely repressed trauma; acts she performed out of fear or intense pressure. What instead took place was a deep dive into what it means to be a victim, and all of the expected and unexpected reactions that come with that label. There are so many prompts in this narrative for important discussions surrounding abuse, consent and an imbalance of power. It's wild to know that Russell began writing this book decades before the #metoo movement, years before so many voices found strength in shared injustices. I keep thinking about how My Dark Vanessa might have been received, had it been published back then. I am even more excited to read the conversations that it will spark now.

Trigger warning:

sexual content between a minor and an adult

Read if you like:
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Putney by Sofka Zinovieff
Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller

Key themes: 
sexual abuse, grooming, manipulation
delusion, mental health, abuse of power



CLICK HERE to read about Kate on her author page.



  1. I admit that the title of the book did not attract me that much but I kept on reading the summary and now that I’ve read it, I want to buy the book. But before that, I need to buy Pay For College Assignments because only then I’ll have the time to read this book rather than my dissertation.


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