Review: My Dark Vanessa

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Rating: 5 out of 5.

WARNING: Here there be spoilers

A preface: This book isn’t for everyone. The subject matter is difficult, the characters frustrating.

The story, set in Maine, follows Vanessa Wye both as a 15-year-old boarding school student and as a 32-year-old concierge. At 15, Vanessa is a loner. She’s lost her only friend and feels out of place and invisible – until Mr. Strane’s American Literature class. With so much inevitability, Vanessa catches Mr. Strane’s eye. As the teacher, in his early 40s, makes subtle and not-so-subtle advances toward Vanessa, she feels noticed, important, and valid for the first time. She’s special, he tells her, and she believes him. Eventually, after escalating their physical relationship at school, Strane invites Vanessa to his house where he takes her virginity in a way that makes Vanessa feel uncertain and uncomfortable. Most of us would call it rape.

Eventually, as is typical in clandestine relationships, Vanessa and Strane get sloppy and are noticed. Strane, however, has covered his tracks by starting a paper trail with he school administration well before the affair comes to light, stating that Vanessa had a concerning crush on him. The situation culminates in Vanessa’s expulsion from school. Strane keeps his position.

And then it’s 2017 at the height of the #metoo movement, and another student from Vanessa’s school has come forward alleging that Strane groomed her. This revelation forces Vanessa to think long and hard about her relationship with Strane, with whom she remains in contact. As more allegations pour in, Strane loses his confidence. In a desperate act to escape justice, Strane commits suicide.

As Russell takes us further into Strane and Vanessa’s relationship, it becomes exceedingly clear to us (and, to an extent, her) that the teenage girl was groomed into a sexual relationship with her teacher. The story doesn’t end on a particularly happy note – Vanessa is finally opening up to her therapist and admitting to herself how significant of an impact Strane’s grooming had on her life. There is growth and strength there, even if it’s only alluded to.

My Dark Vanessa is a challenging read. The characters are almost altogether unlikeable, their motives disturbing. But it’s an important book. This type of abuse is abhorrently common and can sometimes be difficult to recognize or label, let alone reckon with. Russell does a fantastic job of painting a realistic portrait of this type of sexual abuse.

With a note of caution due to the intensity of the subject matter, I highly recommend My Dark Vanessa.

Date read: July 24, 2021

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