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My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Contemporary fiction

My Dark Vanessa

Debut

We love supporting debut authors. Congrats, Kate Elizabeth Russell, on your first book!

by Kate Elizabeth Russell

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Quick take

A student-teacher affair exposes dark truths about the nature of the past and memory—a gripping, propulsive must-read.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_SocialIssues

    Social issues

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_NonLinear

    Nonlinear timeline

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Sad

    Sad

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_ForbiddenLove

    Forbidden love

Synopsis

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.

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Content warning

This book contains mentions of suicide and scenes that depict sexual assault.

Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of My Dark Vanessa.
My Dark Vanessa

2017

I get ready for work and the post has been up for eight hours. While curling my hair, I refresh the page. So far, 224 shares and 875 likes. I put on my black wool suit, refresh again. I dig under the couch for my black flats, refresh. Fasten the gold name tag to my lapel, refresh. Each time, the numbers climb and the comments multiply.

You’re so strong.

You’re so brave.

What kind of monster could do that to a child?

I bring up my last text, sent to Strane four hours ago: So, are you ok . . . ? He still hasn’t responded, hasn’t even read it. I type out another—I’m here if you want to talk—then think better and delete it, send instead a wordless line of question marks. I wait a few minutes, try calling him, but when the voicemail kicks in, I shove my phone in my pocket and leave my apartment, yanking the door closed behind me. There’s no need to try so hard. He created this mess. It’s his problem, not mine.

At work, I sit at the concierge desk in the corner of the hotel lobby and give guests recommendations on where to go and what to eat. It’s the tail end of the busy season, the last few tourists passing through to see the foliage before Maine closes up for the winter. With an unwavering smile that doesn’t quite reach my eyes, I make a dinner reservation for a couple celebrating their first anniversary and arrange for a bottle of champagne to be waiting in their room upon return, a gesture that goes above and beyond, the kind of thing that will earn me a good tip. I call the town car to drive a family to the jetport. A man who stays at the hotel every other Monday night on business brings me three soiled shirts, asks if they can be dry-cleaned overnight.

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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.

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Member ratings (6,733)

  • Anna R.

    North Benton, OH

    My heart breaks for this fictional character. I ask myself while reading, “why did he do this to her, why can’t she see how he groomed her?!” The worst part is I know how common this is in schools.

  • Brittany B.

    Oak Creek , WI

    Russell’s writing is raw and reflective of true trauma experiences. I was glad that there wasn’t a forced “triumph” for Vanessa or neat resolution of trauma, as real life is not often like that.

  • abril p.

    chicago, IL

    I thought this book was well written and it was hard for me to put it down . The author did a great job making a fictional character feel very real. BUTIt’s a dark read and can be triggering for some

  • Sara T.

    Richmond, TX

    This line stands out and makes you think about the distortion: “Why is everyone so scared to admit how good that can feel? To be groomed is to be loved and handled like a precious, delicate thing.”

  • Rachel B.

    New York, NY

    Really loved & found it hard to put down—only stopped reading when I fell asleep. Interesting to see the differing vantage points along with the changing trauma response as Vanessa goes through life.

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