I had no intentions of reading this book at the time I did. It was on my TBR, but not at the top of my list. When I opened up my library app, I was looking for an audiobook to listen to while I got ready for work. But I saw that my library had opened up copies of it for a virtual book club, and I gave it a download. Over the next three days, I dedicated every spare moment to reading My Dark Vanessa, a story as disturbing as it is engaging.
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The summary, from Amazon:
INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
“Russell manages a brutal originality. . . . [an] exceedingly complex, inventive, resourceful examination of harm and power.” —The New York Times Book Review, Editors’ Choice
“To call this book a ‘conversation piece’ or ‘an important book’ feels belittling . . . [it] is so much more than that. It’s a lightning rod. A brilliantly crafted novel.”—The Washington Post
A most anticipated book by The New York Times• USA Today • Entertainment Weekly • Marie Claire • Elle • Harper’s Bazaar• Bustle • Newsweek • New York Post • Esquire • Real Simple • The Sunday Times • The Guardian
Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.
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 flashes between Vanessa’s past and present. We first see her in her early thirties, a depressed stoner with not a lot going on for her. She remains in contact with Strane, the former teacher with whom she had a relationship. And that’s just the thing – though as the reader, it’s evident that Vanessa’s “relationship” with Strane was abuse, she does not see it this way.
In the first chapter, Vanessa is annoyed by a viral Facebook post by Taylor, a woman a few years her junior, who also was once Strane’s pupil. Taylor has shared that Strane sexually abused her when she was a teenager. These alternating chapters show Vanessa struggling with the complex emotions of her abuser being called out during the #MeToo era in spite of the fact that Vanessa herself has not come to terms with the fact that she was abused.
The other chapters show a younger Vanessa, first in high school and later as a college student. Most of these alternating chapters show her at fifteen and sixteen, when she met and was groomed by Strane. These chapters are both incredibly disturbing and engaging. I, like Vanessa at times, was simultaneously disgusted and enraptured. It’s pretty obvious from the summary, but as a content warning, this book contains graphic sexual scenes between an adult and a minor.
I have seen reviews that say this book is unrealistic, perhaps because Vanessa truly does not believe she was abused, even when the sexual scenes are so clearly not love scenes. They are painful and awkward and scary. But I do think this is very realistic. I was not a victim of childhood sexual abuse, but as a young adult was date-raped, and it took me months to believe what happened wasn’t just miscommunication or me being awkward. It makes even more sense that a minor, and then a young adult who had been groomed, would have a similar reaction.
This book is disgusting and disturbing, but it is meant to be. Russell did what she set out to do. My only qualm was the ending, which I found to be a little abrupt. Vanessa’s character is incredibly depressed and flat throughout the novel. I do not mean this as criticism; it’s who Vanessa is as a character and the result of her past. In the final chapter, she has started to feel some hope, but I found it to be a sudden change. Such a dark story was told over hundreds of pages, and then in the span of just a few we get a shot of happiness. I’ve seen other books deal with a depressed character’s mood lifting in a more authentic, gentle way. However, maybe this was the author’s intention – to show that things haven’t gotten much better for Vanessa yet, but to give us hope that they will.
Overall, if you can handle the content, I think this is a must-read. It gives great insight into the mind of a groomed victim of sexual abuse, and is an excellent, sensitive think-piece on the #MeToo movement.
I devoured this book and spent all of my available moments reading it until I finished it. It’s disturbing and engaging and achieves what it sets out to do. My only qualm was with the ending, which felt a little abrupt.
P. S. I’m a huge fan of audiobooks. While my poison is nonfiction, if you like the sound of this book, why not try it out on Audible? I highly recommend this service, especially as libraries aren’t always able to get ebooks and audiobook files to you in a timely manner. (Blame the publishers – not the libraries.)
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