A student-teacher affair exposes dark truths about the nature of the past and memory—a gripping, propulsive must-read.
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Why I love it
When #MeToo first went viral, I scrolled through Twitter with my heart in my throat, thinking of things I didn’t want to revisit, hoping the unstoppable wave of testimony might mean real change for women. Kate Elizabeth Russell roots her remarkable debut, My Dark Vanessa, in a similar moment of public reckoning.
Her protagonist, Vanessa, a hotel receptionist in her early thirties, sees on Facebook that a woman has posted an accusation about her high school English teacher, Jacob Strane. Vanessa, too, had a relationship with Strane, one that began when she was fifteen and a student in his classroom, hungry to be noticed. But the Facebook post challenges the story Vanessa’s told herself about what happened, the story Strane groomed her to tell. How can she live if her great love affair is a story of rape and abuse?
The novel travels backward and forward at once, a gripping structural move that kept me racing through the pages even when I wanted to look away. Vanessa charts her relationship with Strane in painful detail, from the strawberry pajamas he makes her wear on their first night together to their phone calls when she’s an adult. The narration is intimate, relatable, and sometimes frustrating—page after page, even with the benefit of retrospection, she refuses to see what’s painfully clear to the reader. But how can we ask her to measure the depth of her wounds? She’s still bleeding out. For Vanessa, Strane’s abuse and distortion exist in an ongoing now. In rendering her struggle to come to terms with what happened, My Dark Vanessa underscores the fact that there’s no one-size-fits-all version of the story of a man taking advantage of a girl. If there is a way to heal, I believe it requires making space for them all.
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. My Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.