Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking those links, I will receive a small commission from the sale at no extra cost to you.My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Published by William Morrow on March 10, 2020
Genres: Adult Fiction, Contemporary
Format: Hardcover (373 pages)
Purchase: Amazon • IndieBound
Add Book: Goodreads • Bookhype
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.
Proceed With Caution:
This book is centered on a student-teacher relationship and covers child abuse, grooming, suicide, substance abuse, and PTSD.
My Dark Vanessa alternates between present day (2017) with Vanessa having to relive her past with her prior English teacher, Jacob Strane, who is being investigated for sexual abuse with five other girls, and her high school and college years (2000-2006) where she was in a relationship with him. Vanessa adamantly believes that things were different with her. She wasn’t abused. They were in love.
I am fascinated by student-teacher relationships, whether they’re between two consenting adults in a Romance novel or if they’re a twisted Realistic Fiction novel like My Dark Vanessa. This book does not hold back at all. it goes deep into the relationship between Vanessa and Strane, from the moment she lays eyes on him, all the way until the bitter end.
My Dark Vanessa had me all kinds of conflicted. Yes, I know a fifteen-year-old girl should not be with a forty-two-year-old man. Especially her teacher. They both know better. Strane especially knows better, and he outright says it! He’s always making sure that Vanessa knows that he can get in trouble, but he convinces her that she holds all of the power here. We both believed him! She can send him to prison with a word. That is powerful. But it’s obviously a manipulation tactic. One of many that he uses on Vanessa over many years. It just takes her a while to realize it.
There were moments where I believed they were in love. They have moments. Or maybe I just wanted them to be in love and prove everyone wrong, much like Vanessa. However, there are plenty of moments that are quite horrific. Their first time having sex? Umm…wow, no. All of the lying and pleading and crying (both of them). It’s a lot. These are two damaged people who seemed to have found something in each other, but also, it’s a very damaged man preying on a teenage girl who is convinced that she’s special.
I don’t even really know what to say about My Dark Vanessa. You’ll know if this book is for you or not based on the description. If this subject matter isn’t something you want to read about, then don’t. If you’re curious how a teenager was convinced to be with a man nearly 30 years older than her and stay with him on-and-off for the next 17 years while convincing herself that it’s totally fine, she’s different, they’re different? Definitely pick it up.
Quotes from My Dark Vanessa:
I loved the math of it, three times my age, how easy it was to imagine three of me fitting inside him: one of me curled around his brain, another around his heart, the third turned to liquid and sliding through his veins. (page 5)
“I prefer to be by myself. It’s normal. You shouldn’t give me such a hard time about it.” (page 35)
Dogs are easy to win over, though, way easier than people. For a dog to love you, all you have to do is keep some treats in your pocket and scratch behind their ears or at the base of their tail. When they want to be left alone, they don’t play games; they let you know. (page 66)
Self-awareness is a good thing. It leads to confidence, knowing one’s place in the world. (page 192)
He doesn’t understand how this works, doesn’t get that I don’t want to pass for eighteen and that I have zero interest in going to the movies as though he were a boy my own age. (page 214)
I’m not a victim because I’ve never wanted to be, and if I don’t want to be, then I’m not. (page 27)