Publisher: William Morrow
Release Date: 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 Vanessais an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.
My Dark Vanessa is a story about a manipulative and toxic relationship between a high school teacher and his student. It’s an incredibly triggering novel as Russell does not shy away from the content. So, trigger warning for rape.
My Dark Vanessa is Vanessa’s story, so her character is as robust as they come. Readers get an in-depth look at who she is and who she becomes, as the story is told from the past and the future. The future chapters offer a look at the consequences of what years of manipulation and abuse could do to a person. Vanessa is not the fully realized person she could have become. Vanessa now lives her own toxic lifestyle and has a hard time coming to grips with her experiences.
Since Vanessa is the focus of the story, the other characters don’t feel as fully fleshed out, especially in the second half of the novel. Though, this didn’t have a big impact on my reading experience.
One criticism I have of the novel is that it’s too long. The first half of the novel is well paced while the second half drags and feels slow. The nature of the story changes by the midway point, so the change in pace is warranted but it never picks back up making it feel as if Russell was writing simply to write.
My final criticism is that the interactions between the two come off as romantic or romanticized. The characters themselves frame their relationship in various pieces of real life fiction highlighting their relationship as dark and twisted yet ultimately romantic. However, these moments are undercut once Russell begins describing the physical acts between the two. Russell makes the power imbalance painfully clear in these moments.
“I loved the math of it, three times my age, how easy it was to imagine three of me fitting inside him: one of me curled around his brain, another around his heart, the third turned to liquid and sliding through his veins.”
Overall, My Dark Vanessa is not a novel for everyone. It’s an in-depth look at a twisted and manipulative relationship with an incredible power imbalance. You will squirm in your seat as you read and groan in frustration at the injustice of it all.