Book Review | My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Vanessa is fifteen years old, attending a seemingly idyllic and prestigious boarding school set in the rolling mountains of Norumbega, Maine in the early 2000s. Jacob Strane is her English teacher, in his forties. And the two, Vanessa insists, embark on a romantic relationship.

This enthralling, dark, devastating and nuanced novel is difficult to write about. Let’s remember one thing: Vanessa is fifteen. And although Strane calls her ‘mature’ for her age, we are constantly reminded of just how untrue this is – she is, first and foremost, a child. She’s petty, and insecure, and naive, and trusting, and lost, and lonely. All of which make the way that Strane grooms her even more abhorrent. In all the headiness and confusion and complexity of teenagerhood, Vanessa tells herself it’s love. That being with Strane makes her powerful, and womanly. That she has the power to destroy everything for him – but it’s a power she will wield and never exercise.

‘But no, that word isn’t right, never has been. It’s a cop-out, a lie in the way it’s wrong to call me a victim and nothing more. He was never so simple; neither was I.’

Vanessa is a troubled and troubling narrator. She insists on having control over the narrative, constantly resists the language of rape and abuse, and yet in a way is already allowing her story to be governed by another narrative – that of Nabokov’s Lolita, a novel Strane gives her when she’s fifteen and which she quickly becomes obsessed with, to the extent of muddling up, in adulthood, what happened in the story with what happened between her and Strane.

‘If I tug on any string hard enough, Lolita will emerge from the unravelling.’

Vanessa’s refusal to see herself as a victim, her insistence on her own complicity and willingness is undermined by her own retelling of the story – graphic scenes of abuse that she reimagines as romance. It is painfully obvious to the reader than Strane is a monstrous predator, and yet, as hers is the only narrative perspective we have, I felt at times wondering if we were wrong to deny Vanessa her fiction.

‘I just really need it to be a love story. You know? I really, really need it to be that.’

But the damage that this event has inflicted upon her life as she moves into adulthood is undeniable. We see how the harm reverberates with the dual narratives of Vanessa in 2006 and again in 2017, at the start of the #MeToo movement and an increased pressure and galvanised momentum to speak out against abusers.

There’s a difficulty in a lack of a clear resolution, and the book feels somewhat over long. We spend a considerable amount of time with a very complex and difficult narrator, which is an emotionally draining experience. But it’s also a masterpiece. Complex, deeply uncomfortable, but utterly captivating.

****.5

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Have you read My Dark Vanessa or is it on your TBR? Do you think it was worth the hype? Would love to hear your thoughts!

11 thoughts on “Book Review | My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

  1. I also finished this book last month and I was struck with how compulsively readable it is despite its complexity. Plus, that line—“I just really need it to be a love story”—is one of the lines that broke me! The middle did drag though and I needed to take breaks from reading it because of how exhausting it was, but this book is really worth all the hype.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful review Rose!! I still need to get back to my copy, I stopped somewhere along 147 pages, and I have not been in the right mindset to finish it, but I hope I’ll get to it soon.

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  3. Ahhh I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed this! Although perhaps “enjoyed” is too strong of a word to use here, since it is an unsettling story, as you point out. I agree that the ending wasn’t entirely satisfying, but I did still think it was a hopeful one. Great review!!

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    • Thanks, Hannah! Yes, I know what you mean – ‘enjoyed’ doesn’t quite feel right, but I am so glad I gave in to the hype and read it. I think that the ending was probably the right call and the most realistic in the context, even if it didn’t give me the ‘closure’ I was after, it was in keeping with the complexities of Vanessa’s character. After I finished it, I went down an internet rabbit hole reading about all the controversy surrounding it pre-publication, which made things even more complicated!

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      • I feel very similarly about the ending, and I think it shows people what a realistic path forward in recovery from abuse might look like. I didn’t know about all the controversy around My Dark Vanessa and Ortiz’ novel Excavation until after reading your comment! It really does add another layer of complexity to this reading experience 😮

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