Book Review: My Dark Vanessa By Kate Russell –– A Different Perspective
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell explores 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 Vanessais an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.
A Sneak Peek Into “My Dark Vanessa”
“You need an organization system!” my AP history teacher cries as I flip frantically through my textbook for the notes I’d taken the day before. “It’s only the second week. How can you be so muddled already?” That I eventually find the notes doesn’t negate his point: I am sloppy, which is a sign of weakness, a serious character flaw.
“Maybe that’s all it was. I was an obvious target. He chose me not because I was special, but because he was hungry and I was easy.”
At Browick teachers and their advisees have dinner together once a month, traditionally at the teacher’s house, but my advisor, Mrs. Antonova, never invites us over. “I must have boundaries,” she says. “Not all teachers agree with me, that’s ok. They have students all over their lives, that’s ok. But not me. We go somewhere, we eat, talk a little bit, then we all go home. Boundaries.”
On our first meeting of the year, she takes us to the Italian restaurant downtown. As I’m concentrating on winding linguine around my fork, Mrs. Antonova notes that lack of organization is my most urgent faculty feedback topic. I try not to sound too dismissive when I say I’ll work on it. She goes around the table telling all her advisees their feedback points. No one else has organization issues, but mine isn’t the worst; Kyle Guinn hasn’t turned in assignments in two of his classes, a serious offense. When Mrs. Antonova reads his feedback, the rest of us stare down at our pasta, relieved we aren’t as bad off as him. At the end of dinner, our plates cleared, she passes around a tin of homemade doughnut holes with cherry filling.
As we leave the restaurant and head back up the hill to campus, Mrs. Antonova falls into step beside me. “I forgot to say, Vanessa, you should do an extracurricular this year. Maybe more than one. You must think about college applications. Right now, you look flimsy.” She starts making suggestions and I nod along. I know I need to get involved more and I have tried—last week I went to join the French club but promptly left when I realized its members wore little black berets during every meeting.
“What about the creative writing club?” she says. “It would fit you, with your poetry.”
I’ve thought about that, too. The creative writing club puts out a literary journal, and last year, I read it cover to cover, compared my poems with the published ones, and tried to be objective as I decided whose were better. “Yeah, maybe,” I say.
She touches her hand to my shoulder. “Think about it,” she says. “Mr. Strane is the faculty advisor this year. He’s smart on the subject.”
The creative writing club has one other member, Jesse Ly—a junior, Browick’s closest thing to a goth, rumored to be gay. When I walk into the classroom, he sits at the seminar table in front of a stack of papers, his combat boots propped up on a chair, a pen tucked behind his ear. He glances at me but says nothing. I doubt he even knows my name.
Mr. Strane, though, jumps up from behind his desk and strides across the room to me. “Here for the club?” he asks.
“It’s just my luck, that when I finally find my soul mate, she’s fifteen years old.”
I open my mouth, unsure what to say. If I’d known there would be only one other person I probably wouldn’t have come. I want to back out right then, but Mr. Strane is too delighted, shaking my hand and saying, “You’re going to increase our membership by one hundred percent,” so it feels like I can’t change my mind.
He leads me to the seminar table, sits beside me, explains that the stack of papers contains submissions for the lit journal. “It’s all student work,” he says. “Do your best to ignore the names. Read each one carefully, all the way through, before you make a decision.” He says I should write my comments in the margins, then assign each submission a number from one to five, one being a definite no and five a definite yes.
Without looking up, Jesse says, “I’ve been doing checks. It’s what we used last year.” He gestures to the papers he’s already gone through; on the upper right corner of each there’s a tiny check, check-minus, or check-plus. Mr. Strane raises his eyebrows, obviously annoyed, but Jesse doesn’t notice. His eyes are fixed on the poem he’s reading.
“Whatever method you two decide on is fine,” Mr. Strane says. He smiles at me, winks. As he gets up, he pats my shoulder.
For the rest of the hour while Jesse and I read, Mr. Strane grades papers at his desk at the back of the room, occasionally leaving to make photocopies or get water for the coffeemaker. At one point, he peels an orange and its scent fills the room. At the end of the hour, as I stand to leave, Mr. Strane asks if I’ll come to the next meeting.
“I’m not sure,” I say. “I’m still trying out different things.”
He smiles and waits until Jesse leaves the room before saying, “I guess this doesn’t offer much for you socially.”
“Oh, that doesn’t bother me,” I say. “I’m not exactly a super social person anyway.”
“I don’t know. I guess I just don’t have a ton of friends.”
“Sometimes I feel like that’s exactly what he’s doing to me—
breaking me apart, putting me back together as someone new.”
He nods thoughtfully. “I understand what you mean. I like to be by myself, too.”
He gets up and walks to the chalkboard, starts erasing the notes left over from class. “What made you want to try out the club? Weak spot on your résumé?”
I nod; it seems ok to be honest with him. “Mrs. Antonova said I should. I do like to write, though.”
“What do you write?”
“Poems, mostly. They’re not good or anything.”
Mr. Strane smiles over his shoulder in a way that is somehow both kind and condescending. “I’d like to read some of your work.”
My brain catches on the way he says “your work,” as though the things I write are worth taking seriously. “Sure,” I say. “If you really want to.”
“I do want to,” he says. “I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t.”
Mr. Strane sets the eraser on the chalk rail and contemplates me from across the room. He slips his hands into his pockets, looks me up and down.
“That’s a nice dress,” he says. “I like your style.”
“I loved the math of it, three times my age, how easy it was to imagine three of me fitting inside him: one of me curled around his brain, another around his heart, the third turned to liquid and sliding through his veins.”
I mumble thank you, manners instilled so deep they’re reflexive, and look down at my dress. It’s hunter-green jersey, vaguely A-line but mostly shapeless, and ends above the knee. It’s not stylish; I only wear it because I like the contrast in color against my hair. It seems strange for a middle-aged man to notice girl clothes. My dad barely knows the difference between a dress and a skirt.
Mr. Strane turns back to the chalkboard and starts erasing again even though it’s already clean. It almost seems like he’s embarrassed, and part of me wants to thank him again, sincerely this time. Thank you very much, I could say. No one has ever said that to me before. I wait for him to turn back around, but he keeps swiping the eraser back and forth, cloudy streaks across a green expanse.
Then, as I edge toward the doorway, he says, “I hope I see you again on Thursday.”
3 Words to Summarize This Book
EXHAUSTIVE, RIVETING, PROVOCATIVE
It has been days since I finished My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, and my mind is still whirling and sifting through all the layers of the story and the facets of Vanessa and Strane’s relationship.
The idea of the book in itself, is admittedly, nothing special. A young girl fall in love with her––much older––teacher. There are hundreds of books out there about the age-gap relationships. What set My Dark Vanessa so much different from the rest is the fact that unlike all the other teacher-student romance that were written through rose tinted glasses, it showed you what truly happened behind the scenes.
After all those lovey-dovey books about teacher and students falling in love and have their happily ever after, My Dark Vanessa showed readers that reality is never as sweet as one would like to imagine. Sometimes, happy ever after was never even in the picture.
After reading My Dark Vanessa, it made me wonder if the plot is anything similar to Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov as it seems to be mentioned a lot throughout the novel. This made me wonder, had I read Lolita, would my perception of this novel change or remain the same?
“It isn’t only the plot, its story of a seemingly ordinary girl who is really a deadly demon in disguise and the man who loves her. It’s that he gave it to me. There’s now a whole new context to what we’re doing, new insight into what he might want from me. What conclusion is there to draw besides the obvious? He is Humbert, and I am Dolores.”
For the plot itself, it’s a fairly straightforward storyline. A teacher––Strane––saw a 15 year old high schooler in his class that aroused him, he pursued her, she relented. And the rest is history.
The plot, in and on itself, is nothing extraordinary. What made the book so successful was the way the character was written, and how they interact with each other. My Dark Vanessa showed all the imperfections and flaws that most authors usually try to cover up or omit altogether. You can say that Strane, as the older person in this relationship––not to mention a teacher––should have known better and kept his dick in his pants. But, after reading how conniving and twisted Vanessa herself could be at times, she was not without fault too.
I don’t know if this book was tagged as a romance novel, but this is by no means a romance. At least I don’t personally think so. There were feelings between the two, maybe tenderness or the need to control and possess, or even obsession. But “love” will never be the word I use to describe what Vanessa and Strane had.
When Vanessa met Strane––her English teacher––she was 15 and he was 42 years old. Even now, after giving it a few days to process the book, I still cannot decide what I think about Vanessa Wye’s character.
Ordinary girls have shoeboxes of love letters and dried-out corsages;
I get a stack of child porn.
Rebellious, head-strong, bold, curious, those were all appropriate adjectives to describe not only her, but teenagers in general. It was also those qualities that had her sacrifice herself and her admission in Browick to take the fall for Strane when rumors about her and Strane dating came out. But that was her in the year 2000.
Then, 17 years later in 2017, when the #Metoo movement started to spread like wildfire regarding Strane and his assault to other high school students, Vanessa had her chance to send Strane to jail for good. One would have though that Vanessa would seize that moment like a person gasping for air after being underwater for so long, but surprisingly, she adamantly decided against ousting Strane. Protecting him and his reputation, yet again, 17 years later.
Was she courageous? Or a wimp? Was she in love? Or just too afraid to speak out?
“Like the laws that flatten all the sex I had with Strane before I turned eighteen into legal rape—are we supposed to believe that birthday is magic? It’s as arbitrary a marker as any. Doesn’t it make sense that some girls are ready sooner?”
Even after reading hundreds of pages from Vanessa’s point of view, I still have no idea what the girl is really thinking or feeling. She seems to just be the kind of person who just goes with the flow, rarely ever fighting back. It was a no-brainer for us readers that she was being emotionally abused and manipulated throughout her relationship with Strane, but then again, she seems to think of it as love. I get that teenagers are impressionable, but it’s odd to see her still having the same train of thought even after 17 years passed. It was as if she was stuck in time, reliving the past over and over again while everyone and everything moved on around her.
If his story was just something that I happened to glance past in the news, I would have without a doubt brand him as a “pedophile”. Because everyone and their grandmother knows that as an adult, you’re not supposed to mess with someone under 18. Especially if you’re a teacher.
But, as I follow Vanessa’s story and started to try to understand Strane more from her perspective rather than letting my own judgement cloud my opinion of him, I found that I didn’t blame Strane all that much. If at all.
“I think we’re very similar, Nessa,” he whispers. “I can tell from the way you write that you’re a dark romantic like me. You like dark things.”
Now, I’m not saying that I defend or support what he did. Because never in hell would I support a teacher dating a teenager and scar her so deeply than even in her 30s she’s still thinking about him in each and every single one of her actions. However, I want to say that I understand where he’s coming from. Despite him understanding that he shouldn’t have done what he did, despite him trying to stop and restrain himself, despite him being a teacher, Strane is still human. And deep down, a man.
And sometimes, even with knowing the rules that are in place and fearing the repercussions of breaking those rules, we as humans are just that reckless and that curious to throw caution to the wind and do it anyway. Even with all that has happened between Strane and Vanessa, from him coming onto her too strongly, him forcing himself onto her––albeit not forcefully, and him manipulating her so that she does what he wanted, I believe he does love Vanessa in his own way.
Again, I’m not saying that Strane is without fault, because he definitely wasn’t. But in the end, I believe it’s not all just manipulation and sex on his end, there were some feelings––maybe not love love––involved as well.
#Metoo movement initially started in 2006, with its goal to help survivors and end sexual violence. Personally, I am happy to see that there’s an organization that not only help and support people who was sexually abused or harassed, it also brought more awareness to sexual harassment and how casually it is sometimes treated.
In the media, we always see how positive the #Metoo movement is. Always praising women and men who came out and told their story as someone who’s brave, courageous, selfless.
However, going through this journey from Vanessa Wye’s eyes, who was––technically––sexually abused when she was 15 and was then forced to tell her story to the public to generate clicks and sensation, I saw the negative side of the #Metoo movement.
In the story, a girl named Taylor Birch came out with her side of the story, saying how she was sexually harassed by Strane because he was touching her knee. And now, almost a decade later, Taylor wanted to bring justice to Strane for her sake and also for all the other girls Strane had touched. So she tracked Vanessa down, had a reporter email her endlessly, call her workplace and even came to meet Vanessa to see if she could talk Vanessa into telling her side of the story.
“He traces road maps of blue veins on my skin, talks about how hungry I make him, that he’d eat me if he could. I wordlessly offer him my arm. Go ahead. He gives it only a soft-mouthed bite, but I would probably let him tear me apart. I’d let him do anything.”
As good as the #Metoo movement is, I can also see it through Vanessa POV how taxing this whole thing must have been for her. With the #Metoo movement, all we see in the news are about the people who stepped forward, told their story and was labeled brave. It didn’t tell you about the other side of the story where people are being harassed by news outlets and social medias. Coerced to break their silence and spread their truth just so that some news article could generate even more clicks. And after, who will take care of the aftermath? Who is going to care about their mental well being after they have had their clicks?
Knowing me, after reading a book, I enjoy reading people’s reviews and what they think of the book. As most people do. While most readers seem to enjoy the book, saying that this book gave them a lot to think about yada yada… It seems to be a general consensus that everyone believes Strane to be a pedophile. A scum of the earth, deserving to die––you know, all that fun stuff.
“I want to be a positive presence in your life,” he says. “Someone you can look back on and remember fondly, the funny old teacher who was pathetically in love with you but kept his hands to himself and was a good boy in the end.”
Now, this got me thinking. What if, instead of Strane being described as someone who’s overweight with a belly, old, wrinkly and needing a viagra to get his dick up, he was instead hot, with a six pack, well groomed, and sexy as all hell?
Would that have changed the readers opinion on him? Would the readers be gentler with him, even with knowing how manipulative Strane could be at times? Would some readers even decide to blame Vanessa altogether, saying that she was the one who came on to him, instead of the other way arond?
Needless to say, My Dark Vanessa is definitely a thumbs up if someone asks me if I recommend it or not.
If you ever decided to pick this book up, remember to not go into the book with the perception that this is going to be a romance novel. Because it is not. If you have been through something similar to Vanessa before––sexual abuse, forced sex and the likes––you might be triggered by some of the things that happened in My Dark Vanessa. So please, proceed with caution.
On top of that, this book is heavy. Maybe it’s different for different readers, but for me personally, I wasn’t able to read for hours on end without wanting to stop every few chapters. It has nothing to do with the language, but more about the characters. There’s just something so melancholy about Vanessa that whenever I start reading, it felt like as if I was slowly being choked out of air and I need to constantly get up for air.
My Dark Vanessa is interesting in a sense that it shows the readers things that aren’t usually talked about in general. It defies what the readers believe as morally true, and continues to challenge and push the readers to change and shift their way of thinking from only believing the blacks and whites to acknowledging that there’s a space where nothing is right nor wrong. Where instead of a definite black and white, right r¥or wrong, everything is a shade of grey.
- Quotes Galore : My Dark Vanessa By Kate Elizabeth Russell
- Book Review : This Is Going to Hurt –– Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor By Adam Kay