author: Kate Elizabeth Russell
published: 10 March 2020
publisher: William Morrow
genre(s): contemporary, thrillers
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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.
My Dark Vanessa is a deeply dark novel that was incredibly uncomfortable to read at times and equally as difficult to process. But it is also a book that I found to be meaningful and important.
It’s the story of Vanessa, who at just 15, becomes inextricably involved with her teacher, Jacob Strane, a man twenty-seven years her senior. The relationship between them is dark from the very beginning. As a reader, we see the grooming process, see Vanessa fall under his spell, even as some part of her rejects it. But that part isn’t enough to keep her away, and she becomes obsessed. But this is not a love story, even as Vanessa often sees it as such. Far from it.
The story is told from Vanessa’s point of view, alternating between her present and her past. That sets up a juxtaposition between the memories of a teenage girl just coming into her own and the damage her obsession has done to her entire being. The dual timelines serve to underscore the effect of the relationship on Vanessa, having the advantage to see what young Vanessa can’t. By having the advantage of seeing the older Vanessa. And that’s the most heartbreaking part of the novel… the struggles that older Vanessa has in reconciling the truth of her relationship with Strane. Did she enter into it willingly, or was she groomed? Everything she is has been defined by this man, this relationship. To accept that maybe it might have been something different would mean redefining everything she is.
There are many readers who feel like there were too many sexual scenes between Strane and Vanessa, enough to make it feel as if it were gratuitous. And that they were too descriptive. That it was all too romanticized. I do not agree. To me, those things were all integral parts of the story. Does it make a reader uncomfortable? Yes, it does. But that is because we, as readers, have distance from the story. We see the situation for what it is because we are looking at it through a different lens. But Vanessa, at 15, was torn between love and repulsion, desperate to matter, to feel. And there was a weird power for her, knowing that this older man yearned for her, a power that she craved and that fueled her obsession.
This book came at a relevant time, in this post-Me Too movement time, making the story that much more thought-provoking and meaningful. It puts a spotlight on psychological manipulation, on grooming, on the long-term fallout from trauma.