My Dark Vanessa: A Novel
"Because it’s so topical and #MeToo and yet not #MeToo at all, because it’s written with so many nuanced and believable details, My Dark Vanessa is gripping from the first page."
Because it’s so topical and #MeToo and yet not #MeToo at all, because it’s written with so many nuanced and believable details, My Dark Vanessa is gripping from the first page. The first question, introduced by a Tweet, “What kind of monster would do that to a child?” begs to be answered in every following page of the novel. The girl is 15, her professor, over 40. Moving forward from that yuck-factor upon which the story is built, the reader looks for the one thing, the one moment when Vanessa translates her experience and names it abuse.
But when we first hear the voice of the victim she is old enough to be anyone’s date, and she sounds rational, certainly intelligent enough to have deconstructed this tawdry situation and fled for the hills years ago. The first indication that this is not going to be an easy story to unravel is her text to Strane (‘the monster’). As a tweet storm rages around accusations that he has abused another student, Vanessa texts him: So, are you ok or . . . ?
The story is told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator, a 15-year-old girl desperately searching for validation, obsessively craving the glance, the tone of voice, the approval from her English teacher, and the same woman years older, who stubbornly refuses to define what happened to her, according to others’ victim standards.
The con is reconstructed in her own mind as she introduces him. “Above everything else, he loved my mind. He said I had a genius-level emotional intelligence and that I wrote like a prodigy.” Sure, we think. Is that not a line? On some level, who would not fall for that kind of a line, at least once? It would sound great to a desperate-for-attention, inexperienced 15 year old.
Strane follows up with the line of the century, a memory Vanessa chooses to embrace in the introduction to the story:
“It’s just my luck that when I finally find my soul mate, she’s fifteen years old.” But she counters with “If you want to talk about luck, try being fifteen and having your soul mate be some old guy.” That Vanessa is so intelligent and that her teacher is equally so, makes the read thoroughly interesting and entertaining.
Kate Elizabeth Russell writes so deftly that the reader is on the fence way too long, trying to give Strane a chance to be a human being with feet of clay.
The story alternates between 2017 and as early as 2000, when Vanessa becomes a new student in a boarding school. She’s friendless, due to an ongoing spat with her ex-best girlfriend. This is part of the reason she’s a perfect target.
We hear Strane describe her 15-year-old self in a phone call that Vanessa initiates in 2017. Vanessa is trying to reassure him that it’s all “going to be okay,” an idea she repeats constantly throughout the book, no matter how okay or not okay things really are. Strane is dodging a scandal in which he’s accused of abusing a former student, in the years after Vanessa graduates, and in this conversation, Strane presumably tries to convince Vanessa there was never anyone else but her, really. Really.
“Vanessa,” he says, “you were young and dripping with beauty. You were teenage and erotic and so alive, it scared the hell out of me.” Even now, 17 years later, this kind of talk turns her bones “to milk.” She begs him to give her a memory of their time together, and he remembers a girl lying on her back in his office, her skirt above her waist, as Strane goes down on her. He remembers her being “insatiable.”
Sometimes she says she remembers these things, sometimes she contradicts herself saying her memories are “shadowy, incomplete.”
At 15, Vanessa is shy and rarely says out loud what she really thinks; she is a lonely new student in a new school and is highly susceptible to flattery. She claims to hate boys of her own age, while criticizing their pimples, how they objectify and use women and then toss them aside. She champions the older man who has presumably gone beyond that; her teacher loves her for her mind.
Vanessa soon parks herself in his classroom, thirsty for any tidbits of attention he throws her way. Soon, she’s getting assignments and suggestions of literature to read and study from her professor. Love poems written by famous writers and novels like Lolita. Discussed out loud in class. Soon Vanessa’s world revolves around her teacher’s every facial gesture, his many tones of voice, notes in the margins of her assignments. And conversations they have over all that erotic material he sends her way. It’s just a matter of permission, before he is thrusting himself into her, and she’s imagining herself on the ceiling looking down at both of them.
So then we wait for the lightbulb to go off for her; it’s now so bright for the reader. This is the hungry pilgrimage of the book (not the creepy sex scenes in which Vanessa yields and simultaneously disassociates from her body) but rather that Vanessa can somehow stand up for herself and shake him off and get on with her young, promising life.
The book presents a timely psychological journey that is difficult to reduce; Vanessa’s intimate thoughts and perceptions extend the complexity of this discussion. Through it all (the repetition of her thoughts about Strane—unwavering support of him, denial of his true nature), the stain of a confused obsession emerges as the deep and lasting harm like a badly drawn tattoo you can never scrub off, no matter how hard you try.