This post may contain spoilers…
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.
After completing this book, I was so numb I forgot how to cry. I crawled under my blankets in my bed and stared out the window as I watched the sky grow dark. To say this book was powerful is an understatement, at least in my opinion. I knew that it would be triggering, I knew it would be painful, and it was, incredibly so, but in the end I have nothing to say but praise for this novel.
As I mentioned, this is triggering and if you’ve read the synopsis you could probably garner that as well. The entire story stems from an incredibly abusive sexual relationship that has been created between main character Vanessa and her teacher Mr. Strane. When it comes to my own personal triggers, I’m not usually effected strongly by things that I read, my triggers tend to come from real life scenarios instead but this book hit me so hard in some portions that I had to take hours long breaks in order to feel fine enough to begin reading again. So if you are sensitive, I would highly suggest steering clear of this book. It is strong and it is dark and I just wanted to caution those of you that might be looking for something in depth with the trigger warnings.
This story was utterly haunting and a complete masterpiece that will follow me for years to come. Russell has written a complex and dark story that follows main character Vanessa as she navigates the lifelong consequences of an abusive manipulative sexual relationship with her former teacher. It is powerful and does so well at going into the lasting psychological damage that can be done to a person that has been placed in this situation.
The novel is broken into sections from the past, set in 2000 when Vanessa is in high school and then in 2017 when Vanessa is an adult. There are also a few chapters that take place while Vanessa is in college in 2007. It is intriguing to see how the story unfolds between these time periods and I think that the nonlinear chapter layout only helps to illustrate just how strongly the abuse that Vanessa endured burrows itself into her entire psyche.
I’ve seen a few reviews in which people have a critique over the story being repetitive and I agree, it is, but that’s exactly how it needed to be written to illustrate what was going on. Vanessa had her entire life taken from her because of Mr. Strane. He changed her memories, changed her behavior, he dug himself into every corner of her life and completely changed her. This is a story that happens to many. Abuse is repetitive. That’s exactly how abusers maintain their control. The repetitive nature is exactly why this story is so important. It’s not a one time offense, it’s not an obvious catastrophic “event”, it’s years of psychological manipulation and gas lighting and coercion. It’s seeing Vanessa’s entire life fall short in front of her eyes as she realizes that everything she has ever experienced is nothing like she had once imagined it to be.
The complexities of Vanessa’s own thoughts are hard to delve into, to see herself so strongly defend her former teacher, to so strongly believe what she was taught to believe. It’s heartbreaking. It’s devastating. And I can only hope that this story will get into the hands of people who need it. That as years go on, more people will find strength in their stories both fiction and not.
As a final thought, I have also seen people express disappointment at the ending and I can see where people could imagine this story taking a different direction than where it ends up. But I applaud Russell for how she wrote the ending. People can find power in simplicity, in finding the strength to start to mend from their broken pasts. Healing and change isn’t instantaneous, it is not the social media posts, the protests, the yelling and the crying, the complete 180’s in lifestyle. It can be this, but healing can be quiet. It can be healing relationships with those that you lost while you were trapped, it can be finding companionship in a new pet, or a new person. It is therapy and medication and spending weeks upon weeks asking yourself “what would my life look like if I had chosen a different path… If I hadn’t made this choice.” Healing is different for every single person that has gone through abuse or trauma. I mean the book illustrates that very clearly. Compare how Vanessa has lived her life compared to Taylor, the girl who publicly accuses Strane. Life is lived differently by everyone and I felt like the ending showed just a sliver of hope for Vanessa and that’s exactly what I needed to see.
Have hope. Find strength. Learn and live.