Summary and book reviews of My Dark Vanessa by Kate Russell

My Dark Vanessa

A Novel

by Kate Russell

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Russell X
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Russell
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2020, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2, 2021, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

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.

Disclaimer

I grew up in Maine and was educated there—first at a private (day) school in ninth and tenth grades, until I withdrew for personal reasons, and later at college. Because of the similarities between those broad facts and certain fictional elements of My Dark Vanessa, I am aware that readers who are loosely familiar with my background may jump to the erroneous conclusion that I am telling the secret history of those events. I am not; this is a work of fiction, and the characters and settings are entirely imaginary.

Anyone who has been following the news over the past few years has seen stories that suggest the narrative of this novel, recast by my imagination. Into that I have worked other influences such as critical trauma theory, the pop culture and postfeminism of the early aughts, and my own complicated feelings toward Lolita. All of that is the normal process of fiction writing. But in a surfeit of caution it bears repeating that nothing in the novel is intended ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

My Dark Vanessa raises a number of complex questions: Is someone a victim of abuse if they believe they were complicit? What responsibility do people have to broadcast their painful experiences if doing so may prevent others from harm? What responsibilities do abusers have toward their victims when their actions have colored every aspect of their victims' futures? What does justice look like in these cases?..continued

Full Review Members Only (650 words).

(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

NPR
My Dark Vanessa is...a page-turner structured to amp up suspense, but it's also self-consciously bookish, with frequent references to transgressive relationships in literature...And its narrator is not particularly likable...Even so, this upsetting novel, which powerfully unpacks so much about the trauma of abuse, victimhood, silencing, misplaced guilt, power, consent, and wayward desire, is a significant addition to the necessary reassessments and conversations sparked by the #MeToo movement.

New York Times
One of the cleverest aspects of the novel is how it resists the facile linear form of revelation; it backs up toward insights, runs away from them, sifts through them again, obsesses...Very occasionally the writing veers toward clunkiness or overexplication, but at her best, Russell probes deftly at the disorienting paradoxes inherent in these relationships...It is difficult to write about this subject without falling into predictable tropes or clichés, but Russell manages a brutal originality.

Washington Post
Russell manages to weave beautiful prose with gut-wrenching truth so deftly that even the most squeamish reader will not be able to stop themselves from wading into deeper water. If you’re looking for hard-and-fast answers, grand epiphanies, satisfying retribution, a celebration of victimhood or an after school special-esque lesson, you will be sorely disappointed. The genius of this book is what’s left unsaid, the deceptively simple nuance with which this difficult material is handled.

Booklist
Empathetic, incendiary, and discussable.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[A]n introspective narrative that fully captures the complexity and necessity of the #MeToo movement in her powerful debut...This is a frighteningly sharp debut.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Russell's debut is a rich psychological study of the aftermath of abuse, and her novel asks readers both to take Vanessa's assertions of agency at face value and to determine the real, psychological harm perpetrated against her by an abusive adult...A gut-wrenching debut.

Library Journal (starred review)
A deeply relevant debut novel...[that] enlightens even as it chills.

Author Blurb Stephen King
My Dark Vanessa is a hard story to read and a harder one to put down...a well-constructed package of dynamite."

Author Blurb Karen Joy Fowler, New York Times bestselling author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
A truly remarkable debut, deeply thoughtful, deeply emotional, compelling and disturbing in equal measure. I raced to the ending and then found the book lingered with me long after that last page. It is lingering still.

Author Blurb Julie Buntin, author of Marlena
My Dark Vanessa destroyed me. This moving, ferocious story of an all-consuming relationship between a teenager and her teacher traces not just a stolen girlhood, but the aftershocks that haunt trauma survivors years into the future. Gripping, stunningly written, and important...I've been waiting for this book.

Reader Reviews

lani

a variance on Lolita
It took the author 18 years to write his novel. Who would have know how prescient it would become during the current "Me-Too" crisis. This is a very unsettling novel examining the life of a 15 year old girl who becomes enamored with her 42 ...   Read More

CarolK

Dark Indeed
Due to be published in early February, Kate Elizabeth Russell's My Dark Vanessa seems likely to be a word of mouth winner and book group pick. My Dark Vanessa is a dark novel indeed. It reads like non-fiction and is not an easy book to review. What ...   Read More

Margot P

Emotional ride
This is a book that I had to read in spurts as it is as dark as dark can be. I much preferred the second half of the book which in a non-linear fashion fully illustrates the psychological damage sexual abuse causes. Vanessa is not a particularly ...   Read More

Sandi W.

from the teenagers’ point of view...
Do not be fooled - this is a book about sexual abuse. It is not about seduction, or about love. This is a story about an adult, 42-year-old, male teacher grooming his teenage students. There are parts that are hard to read after understanding the ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Butterflies from Vladimir Nabokov's Collection In My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, a much-older teacher begins his seduction of 15-year-old Vanessa Wye with poetry. One of the works he uses to draw her in is the 1962 Vladimir Nabokov novel Pale Fire. Specifically, a section of verse describes how a fictional poet, John Shade, met his wife on an outing to New Wye Falls. Shade goes on to proclaim his continued love for her over the years, comparing her to a butterfly (Nabokov was himself a known butterfly enthusiast) called a Vanessa, a.k.a. the Vanessa atalanta or Red Admiral, in line 270:

Come and be worshiped, come and be caressed,
My dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest
My Admirable butterfly! …

The instructor points out the obvious parallels to his young ...

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