Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

My Dark Vanessa Feature Image

Title: My Dark Vanessa

Author: Kate Elizabeth Russell

Series? N/A

My Rating: ★★★★

Genre(s):Fiction, Contemporary

Age Range: Adult

Publication: 10 March 2020 (William Morrow)

CW: sexual abuse, pedophilia, mention of suicide

My Dark Vanessa is by far the most uncomfortable book I’ve ever read.

Discomfort is to be expected when reading a book about a 15-year-old girl being groomed and abused by her teacher. Normally, this isn’t the sort of book I would choose to read. However, with the recent developments of the #MeToo movement, this book felt like a story that slipped through the cracks. And that’s what it was, at least to me.

Bright and solitary Vanessa Wye begs her parents to allow her to attend a prestigious Maine boarding school. There, she meets Jacob Strane, her 42-year-old English teacher. As Strane sets his sights on young Vanessa, she unknowingly enters a decades-long battle with herself as she is manipulated to believe that what she has with Strane is a loving, consensual relationship.

Vanessa Wye is 15 years old, still a child.

She is the sort of teenager who yearns for adulthood, desperate to be taken seriously. Who wasn’t like that as a teenager? Unfortunately, when Strane gives her the attention she believes she is looking for, she falls for it. She falls for his manipulation, his mind-twisting games, and his continuous emotional and sexual abuse. It is difficult to read about Vanessa engaging with a predator, thinking that she’s being loved and cared for.

The message of this story, in my opinion, is that the system continuously and egregiously failed Vanessa. Everyone around Vanessa failed her. Teachers suspected Strane was involved with his student but did or said nothing. Students ostracized and vilified Vanessa rather than recognize the issue at hand. Vanessa is a victim, not a participant in her abuse.

In our society, girls like Vanessa are not perceived as a victim; they are troubled, willing, promiscuous. She’s a slut. She’s a student sleeping with her teacher to get good grades. In reality, Vanessa is a child being sexually abused by a grown man. Even her own mother neglects to support Vanessa. She completely blames her daughter for being wrapped up in this so-called “relationship,” as though Vanessa isn’t manipulated by the psychological and sexual abuse of a man that she trusts—a teacher, her mentor.

I'm going to ruin you.

Kate Elizabeth Russell

While the subject matter is inherently upsetting, I do feel the content could sometimes be a bit gratuitous.

The novel explored themes and scenarios that often made me feel uncomfortable, distressed, or even physically ill. While I feel this was often necessary to drive home the point, it could also be a bit too graphic at times. I understand the shock-value of the explicit scenes—it’s meant to unsettle you—but it was still a bit too much for me. I think that many people, particularly individuals who are victims of abuse, would be extremely disturbed by the content.

Overall, My Dark Vanessa was a very well-written and thought-provoking novel. Kate Elizabeth Russell penned a story that is extremely timely in the midst of the #MeToo movement and I think this book will be a fantastic conversation starter.

It is important that we learn not to draw distinct parameters of what is deemed abuse, thus marginalizing women who didn’t understand they were even being abused, like Vanessa.

Synopsis: 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.

Have you read My Dark Vanessa? What did you think?

Enjoy this review? Check out my other book reviews next!


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