REVIEW: My Dark Vanessa

Author: Kate Elizabeth Russell

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Genre: Psychological Fiction

Pages: 384

Date of Publication: January 23, 2020

Synopsis: 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 RoomMy Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself. 

Review: Y’all… How lucky am I to have received one of most anticipated books of 2020 for free from – of all things – a Goodreads giveaway?! I didn’t think that it was possible, that people actually won those things, but now that I know it can be done I can’t stop entering them. I don’t think the likelihood of me winning again is very high, but I digress.

Yes, My Dark Vanessa was one of my most anticipated books of 2020 and as you can tell from my 5-star rating above, I really enjoyed it. I hesitate to say that I loved it as the subject matter is really dark and disturbing, and while a complete work of fiction, something terrible that occurs – and probably more often than we’re aware.

I was honestly shocked to learn that this was Russell’s first novel because My Dark Vanessa is masterfully written and entirely engaging. A thought-provoking conversation starter on abuse of power, consent, trauma, and the uber-relevant #MeToo movement, the book’s narrative switches back and forth between timelines; a vulnerable, 15-year-old Vanessa who’s being groomed for a sexual relationship with her English teacher, Mr. Strane, and present-day Vanessa, as she struggles with the aftermath of his abuse and manipulation. The trauma from her experiences runs deep and it’s something that, to be expected, has impacted all aspects of her adult life – her relationships, her career, her sense of well being and mental state, etc. She struggles with her identity outside of her abuser -she even struggles to see Mr. Strane as what he is and was – an abuser. The verbal and mental manipulation she suffered at the hands of her teacher was astounding and heartbreaking, and honestly hard to read. Equally hard to read was Vanessa’s processing of the situation and the ways she convinces herself that Strane was her true love. He ruined her life and she was blind to his manipulation.

A main plot point of the novel involves a former student coming forward and alleging abuse by the same teacher. She encourages Vanessa to join her in speaking out against their perpetrator and the institution that allowed the abuse to occur. For Vanessa, the decision to respond and speak out is no easy feat, mainly because she struggles to see her relationship with Strane as an abuse of power. She questions yet defends his intentions and the validity of their “romance.” Was she really in love? Is she delusional? Was she partly responsible for their relationship?

This is a very challenging, raw read but one that I highly recommend you pick up.

**I received this book for free from William Morrow Books through a #GoodreadsGiveaway, however, this is an honest review and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.

Sarah & Her Shelves Recommended? YES.

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