Review: My Dark Vanessa

My last catch-up post from June is for Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel, My Dark Vanessa, which was one of my top reads for the month and for the entire first half of the year.

mydarkvanessaIn the novel, adult Vanessa near present day is dealing with the fallout from a relationship that started when she was fifteen. In dual timelines, Vanessa recounts how she became involved with a much-older teacher at her private school in her teens, while in the present she watches another girl accuse the same teacher of rape and gain traction against his reputation on the internet. More girls come forward. Vanessa must now reconcile what she’d always considered a difficult romance with the stories that are costing her teacher so very much.

” ‘He was a grown man and you were fifteen,’ she says. ‘What could you possibly have done to torture him?’ For a moment I’m speechless, unable to come up with an answer besides, I walked into his classroom. I existed. I was born.”

This is a difficult review to write, both for the painful content it covers and for the simple fact that I thought the book was pretty much perfect. Is there anything more to say, beyond ‘I wouldn’t change a single line?’ My Dark Vanessa is both beautiful and heartbreakingly ugly. It bravely tackles both physical and psychological trauma, and while vilifying predatory behavior it also challenges the reader to accept a response to this treatment that doesn’t seem to fit the narrative of victimhood: Vanessa does not see herself as a victim. She doesn’t want to condemn her teacher. She continues to reach out to him as an adult, even while he is under attack, even while she knows that he has touched other underage girls. She turns down chance after chance to speak out to anyone in a way that could prevent other girls being abused by this teacher, by this school, by other teachers in other schools. And this, too, is a valid reaction to trauma.

“Ordinary girls have shoeboxes of love letters and dried-out corsages; I get a stack of child porn. If I were smart, I’d burn everything, especially the photos, because I know how they’d look to a normal person, like something confiscated from a sex trafficking ring, evidence of an obvious crime- but I could never. It would be like setting myself on fire.”

As for the writing, the eighteen+ years Russell spent working on this story show. The language isn’t ornate or flashy, the sentences straightforward, but every word has clearly been chosen carefully, and absolutely nothing is out of place. It’s extremely quotable. Every detail is aptly delivered, and the tightrope line between the subtlety of literary fiction and the clarity of commercial fiction is walked effortlessly. There’s a natural, flowing pace to the words, and even the switches from past to present are transitioned gently with linked themes and emotions from one chapter to the next. This is a story to get lost in, if you can bear to be broken by it all at once.

There are also, for the bookish reader, several references to well-known poems and literary works within these pages. The obvious connection, of course, being Lolita, which is mentioned frequently. I think anyone familiar with Nabokov’s most infamous work will see an extra layer of richness to the story as similarities can then be drawn and allusions understood. It’s one thing to know vaguely what sort of book Lolita is when Vanessa’s teacher gives her a copy and it becomes her favorite novel, another to be familiar enough with that work to see how disturbing but disturbingly fitting that is for Vanessa’s experience. But, that said, the ties are explained well enough on page that it really isn’t necessary to read Lolita for the sake of this novel, and it’s not a book to go into any more lightly than My Dark Vanessa. Be aware of plot spoilers for Lolita here though, if you do plan to read it later on. (Minor spoiler in the quote below.)

” ‘Like Lolita and Humbert,’ I say without thinking, and then wince as I wait for his annoyance at the comparison, but he only smiles. ‘I suppose that’s fair.’ He looks over at me, slides his hand up my thigh. ‘You like the idea of that, don’t you? Maybe one day I’ll just keep driving rather than bring you home. I’ll steal you away.’ “

One thing I’ve seen some divided opinion on with My Dark Vanessa is the ending. Despite some resolution, there is no happy ending here. It is, perhaps, hopeful, at best. Vanessa sees some character growth, but much like real life, deep hurt is not easily cured and people will always have differences of opinion and experience. Personally, I thought the ending for Vanessa here was inevitable, and the way we leave off with the other characters felt realistic. That is arguably the best way to end a book so rooted in ongoing social issues. Sexual assault resulting from abuse of authority is not something that we should have any reason to consider resolved or concluded at this point.

In the end, this has perhaps been the most haunting and emotional book I’ve read all year, and I have some truly great titles to choose from on that score. I am lucky enough not to have been raped at fifteen or any age (own voices reviews for trauma content should be sought with care, it is no one’s obligation to announce their traumas for others’ benefit), and yet something about sexual abuse stories always manages to cut right into my heart as though it’s personal. This line, I think, really helped to explain my reaction:

“I had no reason to care about rape then- I was a lucky kid, safe and securely loved- but that story hit me hard. Somehow I sensed what was coming for me even then. Really though, what girl doesn’t? It looms over you, that threat of violence. They drill the danger into your head until it starts to feel inevitable. You grown up wondering when it’s finally going to happen.”

CW for molestation, rape, grooming, gaslighting, and destructive behavior, all on page.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I am 100% on board for whatever Kate Elizabeth Russell publishes next, no matter what topic, no matter how much time she spends on it, etc. She’s a brilliant writer and My Dark Vanessa will have pride of place on my shelf for a long, long time.

And as a final note, I haven’t read this book yet but have recently heard about a nonfiction memoir that sounds like it would be a great companion to My Dark Vanessa: Lucy Crawford’s Notes on a Silencing, in which she describes speaking out about sexual assault as a teen and learning later how her school, local police, and others worked to bury her case. I’ll definitely be checking this one out, and if you loved My Dark Vanessa I thought you might also appreciate having this one added to your radar.

 

The Literary Elephant

46 thoughts on “Review: My Dark Vanessa”

    1. Thank you! 🙂 It’s an incredible novel. A difficult read, but very worth the experience when you’re in the right frame of mind to approach it. I hope you’ll love it as much as I did!

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    1. Thank you! It really is superbly done, I hope you’ll find it as effective as I did! Looking forward to your thoughts when you get to it. 🙂

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  1. Amazing review. This gave me chills: “Really though, what girl doesn’t? It looms over you, that threat of violence. They drill the danger into your head until it starts to feel inevitable. You grown up wondering when it’s finally going to happen.”

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    1. Thanks! That quote really struck a chord for me as well. Sexual violence itself is far too prevalent, but it’s staggering to think about how very far the effects spread even among those whom it doesn’t touch directly. I so hope that someday no girl (or any child) will be raised to look at any violence as an inevitability.

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    1. I feel exactly the same. It’s a stunning book, but I’ll need a lot of distance from it before I can ever manage to pick it up again. I’m glad you found so much to appreciate in these pages as well!

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  2. Wonderful review!! Rereading some of the quotes you selected gave me chills all over again. And I agree with you about the ending – I thought it was as hopeful as it could be while still being realistic.

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    1. Thank you! I found Russell’s writing SO effective, she gets right at the truth no matter how painful. I’m glad you agree about the ending, I thought it felt like the perfect fit for the story! Anything happier would’ve undermined the book’s messages, imo.

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  3. I love when readers describe companion books, especially fiction and nonfiction. Some reviewers will review two books at once and then look for similar themes, even if they aren’t obvious, which is also interesting. I haven’t read this novel, but I’ve read several books by Cris Mazza, the woman who coined the term “chick lit,” which did not originally mean what it does now (and there’s an exploration of “chick lit” in a collection she co-edited called Chick Lit: Postfeminist Fiction (1995). Since Mazza became an adult when sexual assault was still frequent at work (touching a woman’s body, plus minimal tasks like having her make coffee or do some of a man’s work for which he gets credit) and then started writing after than, she straddles the line there in addition to discussions around consent with minors in several of her books. In Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, a woman who had an affair with her teacher when she was in high school sees in the news that a student is now saying he raped her, and that gets mixed in with the narrator trying to save Mexican girls who are brought into California and prostituted.

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    1. Companion books can be so helpful in learning about a topic from different viewpoints! I always find it especially interesting when I find connections between completely unrelated books. I don’t often mention those moments in my posts but whatever I’m currently reading does often remind me in some way of a tactic or idea introduced in something else I’ve read recently, and the confluence really makes me wonder sometimes about randomness and the universe.

      Also, I am now curious about what the term chick lit originally meant. I had no idea it had changed, though I hate that it is used in a belittling way now. Mazza’s experience and work sounds fascinating, and it does sound like the title you mention has some distinct similarities with MDV. There was such an outcry when MDV was published because another writer had written a memoir on the same topic and made public comments about finding the similarities suspicious. Kate Elizabeth Russell was challenged to the point of having to publicly admit she was writing based on her own experiences. It is awful to realize how very many women have lived through such similar situations without anything being done to stop it, and how little respect is paid to them when they try to speak out in whatever way they can. Luckily it seems to be gaining some traction; grown men abusing positions of power to prey on young girls seem to be everywhere in fiction lately. I hope the popularity of the subject means that a change is in the works.

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      1. When I was in 9th grade, I knew a girl who was in 10th grade who was well endowed and behaved in a sexually mature fashion. Whenever this one male sub was teaching — and it was clear this guy was in his 20s — she would be all over him, sometimes physically and other times just way too flirty. I always thought, “No wonder male teachers have sexual affairs with students; clearly, this girl wants it to happen.” What I didn’t realize until I was an adult was that he should have reported her behavior as problematic, and there should have been a sit-down meeting with parent and a principle involved. Just because a teen wants something to happen doesn’t mean an adult should be complicit, and may even be endangering the teen by suggesting the behavior is okay.

        I have Mazza’s Chick Lit book and should hurry up and read it!

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      2. Oh wow, that must have been hard to watch. There weren’t young male teachers- regular or subs- while I was at school. but there were several young women; there was one female teacher I avoided all through high school because I was so uncomfortable with how inappropriately she would let male students act around her. To be fair I avoided those boys too, but I could not understand why she wouldn’t use her position of authority to teach them that wasn’t okay. I suppose that’s a slightly different subject altogether though. My Dark Vanessa does touch on the teen girl’s supposed willingness in the relationship with her teacher in a way that demonstrates that “consent” at that age and in such a power imbalance cannot be taken seriously at all. It really is the teacher’s job to draw the line and stay professional, and the grossest cases are the ones where the teacher realizes it and goes ahead anyway. I really hope your schoolmate found some helpful guidance in the end.

        I’d love to see that review!

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      3. Ha it wasn’t so bad! But I feel the same about my earliest reviews, I always cringe looking back through them. Hooray for writing growth!
        Anyway, Various Men does sound like an interesting book! I can see how comments around MDV might bring it to mind, in the way that it explores female sexuality and gives credence to actions/reactions that don’t necessarily fit what society dictates that women should be like, in general and in particular circumstances. Too often I think we expect there to be a “norm,” when in reality we must accept that there is so much more variety to every facet of life, and none of it is “wrong.” (Unless it’s hurtful to someone else, I draw the line there.)

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      4. I have a hard time with society choosing a year (18) at which a person is then responsible for themselves, even if they are not mature nor has their brain fully developed. On the other hand, people younger than 18 used to get married and have families. When does it become an abuse of power? I’m never sure, especially when I think of how confident I was as a teen.

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      5. There are definitely cases where the age line seems arbitrary, and I believe the age of consent is different across countries as well, which makes it harder to feel that any particular age is the right key to consent. The power abuse is a little clearer to me, though I could see there being cases where both parties are mature adults when the line could be blurred there as well. In general though, I see abuse of power defined not necessarily by age but by how two people are connected- anyone who is in a position of being a mentor, protector, guide, etc. and/or could impact your professional life should keep that relationship professional imo, and it’s on the person who holds the authority in that situation to ensure that it doesn’t become personal. No person in a romantic relationship should have disproportionate control over the opportunities given or denied to the other party, is the way I see it. I would definitely say that historically an equal balance of power has not been a priority in marriages, so there was probably less consideration for the age of consent when it was common for teenagers to marry and start their lives. Lower life expectancies and lower rates of young adults going to college may also have meant that people “grew up” faster, or had to be responsible for themselves earlier, at least, even if their brains weren’t fully developed either. There’s a lot to think about for sure, and I suppose I would say a lot of consent probably depends on a case-by-case basis rather than firm rules. No does mean no, though! It’s the cases where yes actually means no that are so tricky.

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      6. I agree with you about the person in power and relationships in which one person has authority. It used to drive me insane that my boss at the civic theatre would start every meeting by walking into the room and saying, “Hi, friends.” It was like, bro, we can’t be friends if you can fire me

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      7. Yikes. It makes sense that a boss would want a friendly environment, but there are boundaries! Or there should be.

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    1. Thanks so much! I thought this was such powerful and important book; as long as you know to expect a heavy read, you really can’t go wrong with this one. I hope you’ll find it as impressive as I did!

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  4. I think this book ended in a realistic fashion, which I appreciated. Any other way would have been rushed and felt unreal, given how Vanessa was throughout the novel. I absolutely love your review and I’m so glad you enjoyed this one!

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    1. Thank you! It’s an incredible book. And I completely agree, a happier ending would’ve felt untrue and taken away from the book’s messages about the long-lasting effects of trauma.

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  5. I will absolutely not be reading this book as if it is written as well as you say, my heart and head cannot handle it. That said I really enjoyed reading about the book and its interesting ramifications. I did read Lolita back in the day and kept expecting to find it horrible but instead found it well written and super sad. The First Mate said he listening to Jeremy Irons read Lolita and that listening to it made him nauseous even while he admired the writing itself and the voice performance. I do think books like MDV are important and I am glad they exist even if I cannot read one.
    x The Captain

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    1. That’s a completely understandable choice, and I’m sure you’re not alone in making it. It really is a powerful book, and very painful to read. I’m glad it exists as well, and hope it reaches the people who need it.
      My experience reading Lolita was similar to yours. The idea of Humbert Humbert is certainly abhorrent, but I also felt the novel was well-written and not as difficult to read as I’d expected. I think the fact that even Humbert sees himself as the villain makes it easier to both agree and disagree with him without feeling so emotionally involved. (Whereas in MDV the reader sees the villain more clearly than Vanessa, which makes it so heart-wrenching watching her navigate the situation.) I can imagine hearing a good voice actor narrate Lolita would make it more of a challenge to sit through though, as it would bring Humbert and his perspective to life in a way reading him on the page doesn’t quite touch.

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  6. Completely agree!! this was such an incredible book. I loved the alternating points of view, and how each version of Vanessa–one younger and one older–makes the other version stand out so much more. I listened to this on audiobook as well (during my commutes to work) and it was very hard trying to keep my facial expressions in check because i was reacting so strongly to what was happening. there are so many little moments in this book that don’t seem that important but that Russell has clearly put thought into and that come together to make such an excellent book.

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    1. Thank you! I felt the exact same about the two timelines making each other stronger; so often I have a clear preference when there are multiple story lines, but the two versions of Vanessa worked so well together and both situations were interesting in their own way that I found both very effective. If either were missing, the book would have fallen apart.
      I bet this would be such a difficult book to read in public! It’s good I was alone because I was muttering to myself the whole way through and full-on cried at one point, oops. I admire your self-control! So much care and attention was clearly paid to every paragraph that it was all one brilliant gut-punch after another. Russell is THOROUGH.

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  7. great review! i felt the same way about essentially all of it. i absolutely found myself lost in this one, i think i read it almost entirely in one sitting. so brutal, but so well-written.

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    1. Thanks! I kept having to take breaks because I wasn’t handling the content well, but I could definitely see how the writing and story all flowed together so well that another reader would have a hard time putting it down at all. Russell’s skill is absolutely undeniable, this book came together beautifully despite how painful it is.

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    1. Thanks! It’s phenomenally written, but definitely a hard subject to stomach. As someone who rarely feels deeply affected by fiction, this one was hard for me to read. Nothing wrong with steering clear for your own mental health, but maybe keep an eye out for future publications from Russell because she’s got a talent!

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  8. Great review! It’s been awhile since I put this down but I find myself thinking of it again and again, especially recently when there was a spate of high school students in my area accusing their teachers of sexual harassment. The reactions were mixed, and anyone who didn’t have the “right” reaction to it was immediately called out and shut down. I remembered MDV during those moments and it helped me hold space for those who didn’t react in the same outrageous manner (e.g. “But we were so close to him, he was like an older brother to us”). Who knew fiction could so powerfully affect my own behavior IRL?

    As for the ending, I agree with you—it’s the best ending for a book like this. I actually found it hopeful and satisfying. I’m so glad you loved this one! I hope you’ll have more amazing reads like this this year. 🙂

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    1. Thanks! MDV is definitely a book that sticks with you. I’m so sorry to hear that kind of predatory behavior has been happening in your area, that’s so frustrating and disheartening to see in real life. It seems there is always such a strong and immediate response denying the victim’s claims whenever an accusation comes up. It can be hard to find the right balance because in most cases it doesn’t seem unreasonable to want proof of a crime, but the fact that proof is hard to come by in any sexual assault case can make the discussion around it very complicated for everyone. I would completely agree that fiction on this topic has helped me better understand different reactions people can have in these situations and guided me in how to respond with awareness as well. Fiction really does have a lot to say about the real world!

      And I’m glad you agree on the ending! I felt exactly the same, it was as positive an end as this book could’ve realistically had, I think. Thank you! 🙂

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    1. Thank you! This was such a powerful read, I’m confident it’ll be one of the most emotional books I read all year, maybe even at the top of that list. I’m glad you found it effective as well!

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  9. As a male reader of this book, I find the rarity of male reviewers disappointing. I consider this book among the very few books I can never forget. The sessions with Ruby were poignant and I liked the ending where Vanessa is on the mend and looking hopeful. She even got a dog.

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    1. Vanessa really is unforgettable and I’d love to see more people reading her story, men included. So much of the book is revelatory of the trauma that gets buried and goes unsaid even while it retains its power to harm. Seeing Vanessa find ways to cope and move on is such a relief at the end of the book, but I also appreciate that the novel doesn’t wrap things up too neatly- Vanessa will never forget what happened to her and it will never not affect her. But the dog should definitely help!

      Thanks for stopping by with a comment, and I’m glad you found this book so impactful. 🙂

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