My Dark Vanessa
(There is a great deal of controversy over this book. To learn more about that, read this.)
I picked up Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa expecting a thriller about a woman’s attempts to come to terms with the inappropriate relationship she had with her high school English teacher when she was fifteen and he was forty-two. But while the novel does explore the relationship and its aftermath, it didn’t feel at all like a thriller to me. As a result, I came away from it with a feeling of overall dissatisfaction, something that might not have happened had the novel been marketed differently.
Vanessa Wye is fifteen when she first meets Jacob Strane. He’s attractive, charming, and deeply intelligent, and he seems to take an interest in her as more than just another one of his students. Eager to experience the world the way she thinks an adult would, Vanessa begins spending more and more time with Jacob, sneaking into his classroom and even into his home in order to be alone with him. She believes herself to be deeply in love with him, and she’s determined to save him from the consequences of their relationship when their secret eventually gets out.
In 2017, Vanessa is contacted by one of Jacob’s former students, a woman who is accusing him of sexual assault. She wants Vanessa to come forward, to finally reveal the truth about her own relationship with Jacob Strane, but Vanessa is unwilling to speak out against the man she has always viewed as her first love. Vanessa has convinced herself that she willingly entered into her illicit affair with Jacob, and no matter how much she learns about sexual assault and the many ways it’s presented, she can’t bring herself to believe that’s what happened to her. Instead, she decides to stick by Jacob in a last ditch effort to protect him from the consequences of his actions. Of course, things don’t go as smoothly as Vanessa envisions, and she is eventually forced to confront some difficult truths about her past and the way it has influenced her present.
At its core, My Dark Vanessa is a portrait of one woman’s journey of self-discovery as she deals with parts of her past she has repressed for years. There is no mystery involved, since it’s clear to the reader from the very beginning that Jacob abused Vanessa, so I’m not sure why the novel is being described as a thriller. There’s a lot to love about the story, but only if you pick it up with a firm understanding of what it is and what it isn’t.
Vanessa is a heroine many women are sure to relate to. She’s a fantastic mix of strength and vulnerability, someone who doesn’t always make the right choices, but is clearly doing the very best she can with a set of less than ideal circumstances. Her life is messy, and the root of this mess can be traced right back to Jacob, something Vanessa herself doesn’t realize until pretty close to the end of the book. She has a lot of soul-searching to do first, and the author does a fantastic job illustrating the difficulties she faces as she attempts to make sense of her past.
Ms. Russell goes into quite a bit of detail concerning the time Vanessa spends with Jacob, and while the descriptions of the abuse aren’t necessarily graphic, they can be difficult to read at times. I had to put the book down at certain key points in the narrative, just to give myself a bit of time to process what Vanessa was going through. This is an important story for sure, but it might not be suitable for all readers due to its subject matter.
I loved the way the author chose to juxtapose Vanessa’s past with her present, allowing the reader to gain a clear understanding of her emotional state at both points in time. The novel shows us that abuse doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that this kind of trauma simply doesn’t fade away because we wish it would.
If you decide to pick up My Dark Vanessa, please don’t go into it expecting something twisty and suspenseful. Instead, read it for the important message the author delivers to women everywhere, a message of strength and hope that is likely to speak to you even if your own life experience is vastly different from Vanessa’s.