My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
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?
(note: I use “relationship” in this review in the platonic way, not the romantic way. So when I say “relationship with her teacher”, I mean the way they are connected the same way I’d say “her relationship with her mother”, rather than to mean the way they’re romantically involved. Just for clarity)
I really enjoyed a lot of this book. I really enjoyed Vanessa as a main character. She had a lot of depth and was really interesting.
I thought it was really well-written. The way Russell showed the impacts of Vanessa’s trauma was really well done, and she did a really great job capturing some of the complexities of the #MeToo movement and how victims might feel conflicted. There was a lot of nuance that was well explored. The complexities of Vanessa’s relationship with her teacher was really interesting and well-explored, as well as how it affected Vanessa’s other relationships, particularly with older men and other women.
The strongest part of this book, in my opinion, is the exploration of viewing oneself as a victim. It’s something Vanessa struggles with a ton, and it think it was really accurate. I know a few people who don’t like to call themselves victims or have a complicated relationship with that word, and I think they’d see themselves in this book.
I also really appreciated how therapy is portrayed in this book. Vanessa goes to a therapist and really benefits from it. She enjoys and has a great relationship with her therapist. It also seemed like a really realistic depiction of therapy. I really appreciated this as therapy is still something that is vilified in a lot of books.
There were a couple things that stopped me from giving it a full five stars. I thought it was too long and too short at the same time. Essentially, there are two concurrent timelines: current day Vanessa and past Vanessa. There were some past sections that were so long and didn’t add much in the end. Meanwhile, there were some current sections that were too short and also didn’t add anything because of their shortness. I wish it was a little more evenly distributed.
I also thought Russell didn’t fully get there in the end, if that makes sense at all. As a decently educated, well-read person, I understood that Vanessa had a “oh shit, he was a bad guy” moment. But, it could be less obvious to someone who was in a situation similar to Vanessa’s. I could very much see someone who is experiencing something similar (i.e. being abused by a teacher but developing feelings for said teacher) reading this book and never seeing the teacher in the negative light. They may never have that “oh shit” moment, which could be harmful to them. Maybe this is me reading into things too much, but I would’ve liked the realization to be a little more explicit. Not too explicit, but a little more.
But overall, I enjoyed this book. I was happy I read it and would definitely recommend it if you were looking to pick it up.
So those are my thoughts on My Dark Vanessa! Have you read this book? What were your thoughts? Do you plan on reading it? Let me know!