Title: My Dark Vanessa
Author: Kate Elizabeth Russell
Publication Date: March 3, 2020
Genre(s): Adult, Fiction, Contemporary, Thriller
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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.
TW/CW: rape, pedophilia, gaslighting, sexual assault, physical abuse, grieving, child pornography mention/acts, talk of suicide, suicide, fatphobic comments, disordered eating, brief but very horrible mention at other child abuse things, blood depiction, and overall this is just a very dark book that will most likely make you very uncomfortable to read so please use caution. (TWs taken from Meltotheany‘s review)
I’ve been sitting on this review for a couple days because I really wanted all of my emotions to have been explored before actually talking about this book. This review is definitely going to be a bit more stream of conscious than my other reviews as I have failed to convey my thoughts in a more structured format.
There will also be some spoilers in this review.
This was a book that kept me intrigued and wanting to listen, however, I wouldn’t call this an “easy read.” The subject matter is presented in a matter-of-fact way and is semi-graphic. The sexual assault scenes are definitely on-page and there is some dialogue describing the initiation of the sexual acts.
I think the hardest scene to read (at least for me) was the first time Vanessa and Strane have sex. There was dialogue expressing Vanessa’s discomfort and Stane ignoring said discomfort (and possibly ignoring her verbal removal of consent). This scene has stuck with me so much as so much of there relationship focused on Vanessa suffering through sexual acts with Strane and describing the acts as explicitly unpleasant, while still craving this romantic and sexual relationship. The book highlights several instances of this dissonance, which adds an extra level of realism.
There was also an interesting discussion about how different types of assault can lead to lasting trauma in their own right, and that certain trauma isn’t worse or more deserving of outrage. There’s a scene where Vanessa is talking to another survivor of Stane’s and askes “what he did to her.” When Vanessa is told that this survivor was groped, Vanessa replies with “that’s it.” Even in our post #MeToo world, there still is the mindset that certain types of abuse are more deserving of outrage and other types are “easy to get over” and “not as serious.” Girl Made of Stars is another book that tackles this topic of any unwanted act is sexual assault, not just penetration and I’m happy that more books are discussing this nuance.
One thing that I think I missed when reading this one is the “thriller” nature of this book. There was an eery and unsettling atmosphere surrounding this book, but I think I missed the part of this book that would classify it as a thriller. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just something I want readers to be aware of. I would classify this as a realistic contemporary book, but I saw the thriller classification was also attached to this one on Goodreads.
This book does a great job balancing the two timelines and allowing the reader to watch Vanessa be groomed by Stane, enter into this perceived consensual relationship, constantly returning to this relationship, actively shunning the victim label and loudly declaring she’s not a victim, and acknowledging that there was some abuse in this relationship and figure out what that means and create a path for recovery.
This was a powerful novel that allows readers to tackle their perception of abuse and identify red flags from a different perspective. Strane had a scene where he discussed “normal” acts that seem worse or more sexual once a label has been attached to a person. It allows the reader to think about certain behaviors and assess just how normalized inappropriate contact has become.
Overall, My Dark Vanessa is a fantastically written novel that does an amazing job causing readers to assess situations in a new light. Some of the stuff Vanessa says when she’s younger are things I probably would’ve said if I was in that situation even though as an adult I was able to recognize the grooming for what it was. Readers of all ages can benefit from this and books like this are fantastic for facilitating discussions.
If you’re able to handle the content, I highly recommend this book.