Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

This was a difficult book to read, but I’m going to be recommending it to everyone.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is a story of sexual abuse and what it does to the victim, even when the victim does not want to acknowledge it. Vanessa Wye attends the Browick School, a boarding school in Maine. She struggles, she’s not popular, and a falling-out with her roommate leaves her isolated, but she draws the attention of her English teacher, Jacob Strane. He praises her poetry, compares her hair to the maple leaves in autumn, and touches her in a not-entirely innocent way. In other words, it is obvious to the Reader, if not to Vanessa, that he is grooming her for what will follow.

The story shifts back and forth between her school days (2000) and the present (2017), with stops in the intervening years. In the present, Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student. Vanessa is unwilling to see herself as a victim or label what happened between them as abuse; she is thoroughly invested in seeing this as a love story. When the accuser and a journalist contact Vanessa about telling her story, she is forced to recall those days and events and she finds that they will not fit neatly into the boxes where she has packed them away.

The book was hard to read, at least for me, because Vanessa is a mess. The affair had terrible consequences for her in high school and for her future. She is clearly still suffering in ways she can’t truly face – she hasn’t even told her therapist about the affair. I kept wanting to grab her by the hand, drag her away from the terrible decisions she was making, from the crash she was clearly headed for, but all I could do was wince as I watched her get closer and closer to the edge.

That said, it’s a great read. My Dark Vanessa makes your heart ache for the lonely teenage girl and the damaged young woman she has become. It made me rage inside against the teacher who took advantage of her and continued the abuse, even when he could clearly see the damage he was doing. I wanted to slap her parents and ask them why they didn’t do more to protect her. Every page was painful or infuriating.

The novel has also stirred up some controversy. It apparently has some similarities to the novel Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz, also about a student-teacher relationship. (I’ve not read Excavation, so I can’t comment on that.) Russell’s novel begins with the disclaimer that:

“…I am aware that readers who are loosely familiar with my background may jump to the erroneous conclusion that I am telling the secret history of those events. I am not; this is a work of fiction, and the characters and settings are entirely imaginary.”

Since publication, she has apparently walked that back a bit, saying that she did draw from “lived experience” and it does draw on her teenage years but is still a work of fiction. You can read more about the controversy here.

The novel did not really live up to expectations in one area. Although Vanessa begins the story clinging to the illusion that this was a love story, that she went into it with eyes open and her predator/teacher was not an abuser, it’s clear that is not the case. But could it be? I was intrigued by the idea, but Vanessa is such a mess that it’s clear her objections are a front. Apparently, that’s a story that is still to be written.

Full disclosure: I was particularly interested in this story because of my own history. At 17, I was dating a man who was 24 and divorced. Now, that’s a long way from a 15-year-old having an affair with her 42-year-old teacher, but it gave me an interesting point of connection with the story.

My copy of My Dark Vanessa was supplied free of charge for review. Get yours at Amazon or wherever you buy books during the apocalypse.

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