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4.5 stars

Blurb: 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 Review: It’s hard for me to say I loved a book about a girl’s relationship with her abusive teacher, so I’ll say I highly valued the experience of listening to this book. Grace Gummer’s narration brought Vanessa to life in ways I’m not sure I would have experienced on the page and made the difficult scenes between Vanessa and Strane all the more cringy.

At times heartbreaking and at times maddening, many women can relate to Vanessa’s story on some level as she tries to make sense of what happened to her during her sophomore year in high school. As much as it is obvious to the reader that Vanessa is not responsible for Strane’s behavior, it is understandable that she is so easily convinced that she is. I was struck by how many times Vanessa said “It’s fine” when nothing about her situation was fine and how easily she gave away parts of herself to make other people happy. Anyone who was ever been a fifteen-year-old girl can identify with Vanessa.

Kate Elizabeth Russell has created a rich cast of characters in My Dark Vanessa. Strane manipulates his way into Vanessa’s life long after high school was over, yet Russell writes him with such nuance that the reader gets sucked into his vortex along with Vanessa. I found it fascinating how, unlike another of Strane’s prey, Vanessa is uncomfortable in the role of victim. Her relationship with Strane had come to define her so if she relinquished her part in it, she may cease to exist at all. Vanessa seems to have lost the ability to have an honest relationship with a man or even know what that would feel like. Nothing is black and white in Vanessa’s world and Russell keeps the reader off kilter throughout.