Author: Kate Elizabeth Russell
Release Date: March 10, 2020
Book Length: 373 pages
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.
Someday, when people ask me, “Who was your first lover?” the truth will set me apart. Not some ordinary boy, but an older man: my teacher. He loved me so desperately I had to leave him behind. It was tragic, but I didn’t have a choice. That’s just how the world works.
I’m like a kettle on a stove right now – bubbling, seething, on the brink of overflowing with emotion from all this book has made me feel. I wish I could reach inside myself and pour it all out, find the right words to say what this has done to me, but I’m afraid nothing I say could do it justice.
Vanessa Wye was only 15 when her teacher, Jacob Strane, patted her on the leg – that one act enough to spiral into 17 years worth of physical, mental, emotional turmoil. This book was very difficult to read at times; Vanessa was groomed by Strane from the very beginning, all the while making her believe that she was responsible for their relationship. After all, according to Strane, she’s the one who made him start wanting her; she’s the one who said yes when he asked if she was okay with him touching her; she’s the one who craved his validation – so then that automatically makes her the dark one, right?
It was incredibly mind boggling just how manipulative Strane was the entire time, shifting any culpability from himself over to her in order to be able to live with everything he’d done. It is so scary to think that these people really do exist in the world, and that they prey on young, naïve boys and girls just like Vanessa.
One thing I really liked about the book was how it shifted from the 2000s to 2017 every other chapter; the switch over from one to the other was done perfectly and it made me so interested to see where the events of the past led to in the present. Every relationship Vanessa had after and during Strane was interwoven with theirs, and I think it was really significant for the author to depict this because the affair with him shaped every other relationship after it – including the one she had with her parents. I can’t even describe how upsetting and heartbreaking it was to read about the parts with Vanessa’s mom, both past and present. To read about Vanessa defending Strane both to others and to herself was so hard; she wanted so badly to believe she was his exception, that she wanted everything he did to her because that meant that she wouldn’t have to face the truth.
I held off reading the last chapter because I honestly didn’t want this to end, and when it ended, I cried.
If you are in the right headspace for it, and the events of this book would not be triggering to you, I recommend My Dark Vanessa wholeheartedly. I can’t stop thinking about this book, and I will never stop thinking about this book. One of my favourites of 2020 and all time.