Published by William Morrow on March 10, 2020
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. 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.
I have a “normal” schtick for how I write reviews, and it doesn’t really ever deviate. I make some sassy remarks, explain the plot a little, discuss what worked and did not work for me in the book … but I just can’t do it with this one. Any other book, sure, but it feels wrong, in poor taste, however you want to slice it for me to treat this book with anything but somber, grim-faced acknowledgement.
My Dark Vanessa is the story of the titular Vanessa Wye, a young woman whose life path we follow from the age of fifteen until she is in her thirties. Vanessa is plagued by a spectre of memory and regret as it relates to her high school English teacher, Jacob Strane. Strane was older but sexy, magnetic and smart. An older man with a powerful intellect who was not physically attractive in the least, but he made Vanessa feel special, seen.
Strane one day finds his hand on Vanessa’s knee during an English class workshop, and one thing leads to another in an uncomfortable way I don’t even want to give the luxury of typing out. As their relationship evolves and Vanessa grows and ages, she wrestles with feelings and emotions that hit right on the mark, hard and steady. What is rape, really? If you want to please the other person so much it hurts like a fire in your belly, is it really rape then? Vanessa believes this relationship with Strane to be her first love, so special and innocent, that she’d move mountains to please him.
We see Vanessa as an adult in 2017, see how terribly she is doing – even now, Strane is all she can think of. She has a string of failed relationships – none of them are her Strane – and meaningless sex in her wake, her journey to reclaim her life for herself. We see her in high school, in college, as an adult. At every turn, Strane is there, haunting her, dogging her heels. He convinces her time and again that what they shared was different – he loved her in such a special, passionate way, can’t you see how unique our situation was, Vanessa? How pure and special?
I felt an ache in my gut every time she shed tears over this terrible, manipulative man. When she cried, I cried. I don’t often emote over books, but this one had me angry and crying and sick to my stomach. Vanessa is a smart, beautiful, capable woman who is reduced to a shadow of herself, and it makes me resent not just this fictional character of Jacob Strane, but every person who has ever manipulated a child into bending to their will. Every single adult in fifteen year old Vanessa’s life let her down in some capacity, and believe me there are a lot of them. You know a Vanessa. If you don’t think you do, then she is doing an excellent job of hiding it. Hell, you might even be a Vanessa – in some ways, I was too.
I want to check on Vanessa – we last see her in 2017, and now it’s 2020. I catch myself thinking of her, like she is a real person. I wonder if she is OK, how she is feeling, how things are going with her therapist. This is the sign of an excellent character, in my opinion – so realistic she feels like she could come walking out of the grocery store at a moment’s notice. Vanessa’s story is timely, and critical in the wake of the #MeToo movement. It will hurt you and tear you apart, but it’s an important story and I can’t say enough how pleased I am with Russell’s portrayal. It made me physically ill, but it had to. If you are sensitive to the subject matter, please be careful with yourself – but if you are OK with the concept, please pick a copy of My Dark Vanessa up.
“I can’t lose the thing I’ve held onto for so long, you know?” My face twists up from the pain of pushing it out. “I just really need it to be a love story, you know? I really, really need it to be that.”
“I know,” she says.
“Because if it isn’t a love story, then what is it”? I look to her glassy eyes, her face of wide open empathy. “It’s my life,” I say. “This has been my whole life.”
“He wants to make sure he’ll always be there, no matter what. He wants to leave his fingerprints all over me, every piece of muscle and bone.”
“Because even if I sometimes use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else’s mouth the word turns ugly and absolute. It swallows up everything that happened.”