STARRED REVIEW
March 2020

My Dark Vanessa

Review by

We’re living in a moment when predatory men are being held responsible for the power they wield against women—especially younger women. Typically we hear about it when the now-adult women discuss their abuse years later. In My Dark Vanessa, first-time novelist Kate Elizabeth Russell gives voice to a 15-year-old girl who enters into a relationship with her teacher.

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We’re living in a moment when predatory men are being held responsible for the power they wield against women—especially younger women. Typically we hear about it when the now-adult women discuss their abuse years later. In My Dark Vanessa, first-time novelist Kate Elizabeth Russell gives voice to a 15-year-old girl who enters into a relationship with her teacher.

Vanessa Wye is a bright but socially disconnected girl at a Northeastern boarding school. Jacob Strane, a literature teacher who is 27 years her senior, zeros in on her loneliness and grooms his young student for a sexual relationship. Vanessa’s narration switches back and forth from the early 2000s, when she is an enthralled student keeping the relationship a secret, to 2017, when a reporter from a feminist blog reaches out to her in the hopes that she’ll discuss Strane’s abuse. It turns out that Strane had other victims, and they have come forward.

Those who want to deny sexual abuse of children are quick to point out how “willing” the children seem, particularly teen girls who are “asking for it.” Russell has clearly done her psychology homework on how sexual abuse transpires. Her storytelling is particularly strong when she shows how manipulation and coercion operate, and how predators intentionally choose isolated victims whose distress is unlikely to be noticed.

Still, as both a teen and an adult, Vanessa balks at the characterization that she had no agency. She insists their love was mutual, albeit complicated, and that she tempted him into risky behavior. “I wonder how much victimhood they’d be willing to grant a girl like me,” she wonders, pondering sexually suggestive photos that Strane took of her as a teen. 

The reader is able to see heartbreaking truths that Vanessa can’t yet bear to look at, and this conflict is utterly gripping. It’s painful for the reader to view Vanessa’s experience through a more critical lens than she does, and this divide between reader and narrator will surely prompt us to ask questions about the creepy men in our own lives.

If there is a reading list for the #MeToo era, My Dark Vanessa deserves to be at the top of it.

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