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My Dark Vanessa

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

373 pages, Hardcover

First published March 10, 2020

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About the author

Kate Elizabeth Russell

2 books4,326 followers
Kate Elizabeth Russell was born and raised in eastern Maine. She holds an MFA from Indiana University and a PhD from the University of Kansas. My Dark Vanessa is her debut novel.

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Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,309 reviews120k followers
March 12, 2020
Come and be worshipped, come and be caressed.
My Dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest
My Admirable butterfly! Explain
How could you, in the gloam of Lilac Lane,
Have let uncouth, hysterical John Shade
Blubber your face, and ear, and shoulder blade?

- From the poem Pale Fire by Nabakov
Vanessa Wye is thirty-two years old, working a dead-end hotel job in Portland, Maine, and attending grief-counseling therapy following the death of her father. She cannot move on with her life. I suppose many of us have faced similar straits, the relationship that keeps its claws embedded long after the real connection has gone. What’s different is that Vanessa’s big romance began when she was a fifteen-year-old at a prep school, and it was with a forty-something English teacher. Recently contacted by a young woman who is reviving her charges of misconduct against the same teacher, wanting Vanessa to talk about what had happened to her, Vanessa’s recollections of her experience come to the fore, helped along in her therapy.

Kate Elizabeth Russell - image from Split Lip Magazine

We all think, or at least hope, that we are special, and are naturally drawn to people who appear to recognize our particular specialness. But even with that, this looks like an easy call, an adult taking advantage of a child in his charge. End of story. But that is not the story Kate Elizabeth Russell is telling. Based on her personal experiences as a teen in relationships with older men, Russell asks where victimhood ends and agency begins. She wonders about the arbitrariness of age specifications for statutory rape definitions. Do all girls, do all people, mature at the same rate? Is it not possible for there to be a fifteen-year-old with the capacity to decide for herself when to become sexually active and with whom?

We get Vanessa’s first-person telling, and her take on Jacob Strane, forty-five when he meets her at The Browick School, in Norumbega, Maine, in 2000.
It wasn’t about how young I was, not for him. Above everything else, he loved my mind. He said I had a genius-level emotional intelligence and that I wrote like a prodigy, that he could talk to me, confide in me. Lurking deep within me, he said, was a dark romanticism, the same kind he saw within himself. No one had understood that dark part of him until I came along.
If you are rolling your eyes and muttering puh-leez, you are not alone. If it sounds to you like a pervy pedophile has gotten inside an unprepared kid’s head, well, I’m right there with you.

The question is not whether Strane is a manipulative, predatory creep. He clearly is. But there may be more to him. At least through Vanessa’s eyes. One can argue that an older man may be an appropriate partner for Vanessa as long as it is her choice. Our society has clearly taken the position that a fifteen-year-old is not mature enough to make that choice. (the age of consent in all 50 US states is 16 or higher) But are there any circumstances under which it is ok for Strane to be using his classroom as a recruiting venue for young stuff? Even setting aside the institutional power imbalance, are there any circumstance in which it is ok for a 45M to be seeing a 15F? This is the tension in the novel. Victimization versus agency. Pawn versus power. Where should those lines be drawn and who gets a say in their location?

The story moves back and forth between Vanessa’s past and present, noting her growing interest in this man and his methodology for seducing her. He uses an array of authors, summoning Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Milay, Jonathan Swift, Robert Frost, and more from our literary pantheon, to both enlighten his student and soften up his target. Of course Lolita is a part of this.
I carry his books with me, reading them whenever I can, every spare few minutes and through every meal. I start to realize the point isn’t really whether I like the books or not; it’s more about him giving me different lenses to see myself through. The poems are clues to help me understand why he’s so interested, what it is exactly that he sees in me.
It also moves back and forth between showing Strane’s clear manipulation of Vanessa, and a realization that in her newfound sexuality she has a say.
I have power. Power to make it happen. Power over him. I was an idiot for not realizing this sooner.
There are many literary references sprinkled throughout the book, noting some obvious and not so obvious writing of a sexual nature. Strane also uses his English class lectures to point out elements of his relationship with Vanessa in a way that is obvious to her but opaque to the rest of the class. A class discussion of blame in Ethan Frome, for example, is clearly intended for his special student.

Vanessa sees a definite benefit in dating older men and approaches this clear-eyed.
…I wasn’t pretty, I’d have to wait a long time before anyone noticed me because boys had to mature before they cared about anything else. In the meantime, apparently my only option was to wait. Like girls sitting in the bleachers at basketball games watching boys play, or girls sitting on the couch watching boys play video games. Endless waiting. It’s funny to think how wrong Mom was about all that. Because there’s another option for those brave enough to take it—bypass boys altogether, go straight to men. Men will never make you wait, men who are starved and grateful for scraps of attention, who fall in love so hard they throw themselves at your feet.
But there is one more element here that adds some depth to Vanessa’s situation. V’s freshman year roomie was one Jenny Murphy. They had become very close, until Jenny got a boyfriend and became unavailable.
I wonder how it’s possible that I once felt so much for her, yearned to be closer even as I slept beside her in the same small room, our bodies three feet apart. I think of her navy blue bathrobe hanging on the back of the door, the little boxes of raisins wrapped in cellophane that sat on the shelf above her desk, how she smeared lilac-scented lotion on her legs at night, the wet spots on her t-shirt from her freshly washed hair. Sometimes she binged on microwave pizzas, the shame pulsing out of her as she ate. I had noticed everything about her, every single thing she did, but why? What was it about her?
Uh huh. Sounds like V had had more than a bit of a crush on J. It is not until after they break up, when they are sophomores, that the antics with Brane commence. Rebound, anyone?

Russell clearly does not line up directly with the current torrent of sexual predation exposure that has become a daily part of our news feed.
The book has evolved gradually, of course, but took on a whole new meaning as the #MeToo movement gained steam last year. It forced Russell to not only reevaluate her characters’ journeys — an accusation plot-line had been moved to the center — but also her own experiences. “I remember a point where I was scrolling through Twitter, seeing friends and strangers putting these stories of violence and abuse out in the world, harrowing, horrible things, and all we could do for each other was reply with heart emojis,” she says. “In a way, it just seemed to highlight our powerlessness. As the movement evolved, the way all this trauma was churned through the Internet Content Machine started to feel perverse.” She continues: “I ended up feeling rather alienated from #MeToo as a whole — despite it being directly connected to my novel, my life’s work — and I used that sense of alienation to fine-tune Vanessa’s character and shape the novel’s central conflict.” - from the EW interview
V is excited as a teen, but has clearly been damaged by the relationship, as her inability to move on with her life attests. Is the narration of any fifteen-year-old reliable? Does the appeal of the new and exciting through young eyes disguise a tawdry case of sexual abuse? Is the teenager’s feeling of power anything more than a self-delusional justification for having gotten into something she really cannot handle, an excuse for the powerlessness she ultimately experiences? Was her relationship with Strane one of equals, ultimately? Even after there is a break in their connection, it is Vanessa who keeps getting in touch with Strane. Is that the behavior of a victim? What does the thirty-two-year-old Vanessa see when she looks back? Is the older Vanessa a more reliable narrator than her younger version? Clearly this book is the stuff of book club dreams, as there is so much material that is politically contemporary and personally raw. It gently mines the considerable literary lode that deals in April-December romance. In addition, the book, while keeping the story real and moving, steps back from time to time to note real-world implications that tend to slip under the radar.
On the drive home the car lurches over frost heaves and through potholes, an endless wall of pitch black woods on either side. The radio plays hits from the seventies and eighties, Dad tapping the steering wheel along to “My Sharona” while Mom sleeps, her head leaning against the window. Such a dirty mind. I always get it up for the touch of the younger kind. I watch his fingers tap to the beat as the chorus comes round again. Does he even hear what the song is about, what he’s humming along to?
If you are thinking that My Dark Vanessa constitutes a 21st century Lolita; if you are thinking that My Dark Vanessa is an engaging, challenging look at a subject that affects large numbers of women; if you are thinking that My Dark Vanessa is a moving story written by a new novelist, but with the literary skill of a veteran; if you are thinking that My Dark Vanessa has already earned a place on the list of best books of 2020; and if you are thinking that My Dark Vanessa, pending the release of other outstanding 2020 fiction of course, might just possibly be the best novel of 2020, well you are not alone, because, ya know, me too.
“I never would have done it if you weren’t so willing,” he’d said. It sounds like delusion. What girl would want what he did to me? But it’s the truth, whether anyone believes it or not. Driven toward it, driven toward him, I was the kind of girl that isn’t supposed to exist: one eager to hurl herself into the path of a pedophile. But no, that word isn’t right, never has been. It’s a cop-out, a lie in the way it’s wrong to call me a victim and nothing more. He was never so simple; neither was I.

Review posted – June 28, 2019

Publication date – March 10, 2020

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and Twitter pages

-----Library Love Fest - Editors Unedited: Editor Jessica Williams in Conversation with Author Kate Elizabeth Russell - audio - 32:20 – really good stuff
-----Entertainment Weekly - My Dark Vanessa: Why this Lolita for the #MeToo era is the season’s biggest-selling debut - by David Canfield – this one too
-----GR – ‘My Dark Vanessa’ Courts Controversy on the Page and Off - with April Umminger

Items of Interest
-----Mountains - an excerpt from an early version of the novel
-----Split Lip Magazine - The Second One in Five Parts - short story by KER
-----KER’s Twitter handle is a sly Nabakovian reference
-----Vulture - My Dark Vanessa Was an Oprah’s Book Club Pick. Then It Was Abruptly Dropped. by Lila Shapiro
-----BuzzFeed - March 10, 2020 - How "My Dark Vanessa" Became One Of The Biggest Books Of The Year - by Anne Helen Petersen - Lots of great intel in this one - definitely check it out

Referenced Literature
-----My Sharona - you might want to throw things, or wash, after watching this with some new appreciation
-----Left Alone - by Fiona Apple – ok, the song is not specified in the book, but Fiona Apple is
-----Birches by Robert Frost – Just what might this be about?
-----Lolita - by Vladimir Nabakov – public library of India
-----Ditto as a PDF
Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 120 books159k followers
February 2, 2020
How do you best write about a fictional love affair between a teacher and a 15-year-old student that is actually a predatory relationship? There are no easy answers to that question but that is what happens in My Dark Vanessa which alternates between 2000 and 2017 as we see how Vanessa Wye is groomed and then raped by her teacher Jacob Strane. We see the repercussions she must deal with as an adult who does not allow herself to realize that the relationship was, in fact abusive. We see how a child is forced to carry the responsibility the adults around her should have assumed themselves. The delicate and fraught nature of adolescence is captured well.

This book is definitely well-written and the first half is well paced. There is a strong sense of place— the landscape, the sparseness. The prose is tight and careful, intimate and descriptive. The protagonist, Vanessa, is fully realized and the author does a good job of showing Vanessa’s struggle to face what she experienced. Her point of view and how it shifts over time is expertly managed and feels honest. You see how pernicious this kind of abuse is because it makes Vanessa doubt herself and lose herself and see herself, rather than the predator, as the problem. There is an interesting and relentlessly claustrophobic quality to the prose. You want to escape the quiet horror of Vanessa’s story while also wanting to see how it all ends, if she is going to be okay. You want there to be a freeing moment of clean air without knowing if you will get it.

There is some interesting cultural context developed through pop culture references, Lolita, and the evocation of #MeToo. I suspect we are going to see quite a few novels doing this over the next several years as writers try to distill into fiction what has been happening culturally with regard to sexual violence. There were ways the people in Vanessa’s life responded to her that were infuriating and inadequate and that is, all too often, how these things go.

The book does run too long. After about 250 pages, there is a thematic repetition that doesn’t serve the novel well. Vanessa bites her cheek constantly. It’s like, girl, is there anything left on the inside of your mouth??? Vanessa is fully realized but most of the other characters don’t get as much depth, though they should. I’m not crazy about the cover. The real challenge I had with this book is that at times, the abuse felt romanticized, eroticized. It gave me pause. As the novel goes on there were so many rape scenes (and I will always call it rape because that’s what it was), that it just felt… somewhat gratuitous. And, I suspect, that’s kind of the point, that Vanessa, particularly at fifteen, was torn between love and repulsion, that she was shaped into someone who would see the situation as romantic while, with the distance as readers, we understand the situation as appalling. Strane is clearly a horrible piece of shit. Russell makes that crystal clear. But… I don’t know. Does she go far enough?

It all made for a very uncomfortable read and, I think this should be an uncomfortable read. It should make your skin crawl to bear witness to years of predation and sexual abuse. I guess I don’t know how I feel about that discomfort being brought about so prettily. How DO you write this kind of book and get it right? What does “right” look like? These are questions I am going to be thinking about for quite some time.

As for the discourse around this book, online debates can be aggravating. Believe it or not, I do read the books I talk about so I can be reasonably well informed. I have actually read My Dark Vanessa. Wendy Ortiz’s essay, published in Gay Magazine, does not accuse the author of plagiarism. It notes the similarities between the experience Ortiz writes about in her memoir Excavation and the plot of this novel. I suspect there are similarities anyone who has experienced this kind of predation might see because predators are everywhere. But that is a sliver of what her essay is about. What Ortiz is really talking about is who gets to tell what kinds of stories according to the whims of publishing’s gatekeepers. It’s an essay about the frustration of encountering closed doors, time and again, to a story about your lived experience, while those same doors open to a fictional version of a similar story and how all too often, whether doors are open or closed depends on your race/ethnicity. It’s an entirely understandable frustration and one primarily directed at the publishing industry.

As a side note: it is not a demand for people to disclose a history of sexual violence if they write fiction about sexual violence; anyone demanding that is engaging in batshittery. How does this even need to be said?

Back to My Dark Vanessa—it’s not the kind of novel that is “fun” to read. This is not escape fiction. It is dark and disturbing, an ambitious debut novel, and one that is going to spark a lot of discussion and discomfort.
Profile Image for emma.
1,867 reviews54.4k followers
September 12, 2023
Typically when I finish a book, the best case scenario is that I jot down a few notes for the future me who is desperately trying to alchemize fading-away thoughts into a review.

These helpful and compelling insights include phrases like “beautiful writing.” “I don’t like the characters.” “At first this was hard to get into but then I enjoyed it.”

You know. The kind of bring-the-house-down literary criticisms that have the world’s finest book reviews and newspaper Sunday sections knocking at my door.

But when I finished this one, I so badly needed some kind of outlet or catharsis that I sat down and typed and typed and typed. I free-wrote pages of thoughts and feelings until I felt a little better.

Most of that is somehow even less usable than “I Liked This,” but still.

Lately I’ve been shooting for the goal of finishing a book per day whenever possible, which is all well and good until I’m suddenly trying to force myself through an incredibly dark and traumatic book in a matter of hours.

At one point, I caught myself scoffing at this story. I played the Vanessa to Vanessa, the character who doesn’t believe not because of some secret misogyny or doubt or cruelty but because of the story she’d told herself, the narrative she’d created in order to better survive.

“No man is this evil. No person is this manipulative,” I told myself. “Who thinks of all these things?”

Later in the story, Vanessa meets a professor who is kind. He cares because she is so smart, so funny, such a good student. He’s a Good Guy. And so what if his wife doesn’t come up in conversation, when everything else does?

I have known so many men like this that it’s crushing. I have had so many professors who made me feel special and smart until I realized the inappropriate tinges to their words, the idea that it’s not really normal to get late-night emails from men who are fifteen years older and have power over you. When someone tells you everything about themselves and their life, is desperate to unleash the small events of their days, the fact that their wife didn’t come up in conversation is deliberate, a choice.

And the fact of the matter is that I know there are men who are that manipulative. I don’t want to believe it. I want to banish that type of person as a fairytale villain, because it is so much easier to live if I can believe myself an equal participant in everything that has ever happened to me. And if that comes with a little self hatred, so what?

This is a true story. And it hurts to read. And it hurts to recognize yourself in the pages even in the smallest ways. For a very long time I have excused the men in my life for the ways they have hurt me, even if those moments lurk behind my eyelids in the minutes I spend trying to fall asleep for years after they happened. And I wish I could say “no more,” but that would be absurd. That takes a journey, and this book didn’t take me all the way through it, but maybe it helped me take the first step.

This is the story of Lolita from her perspective. This is the story of Lolita returning to Dolores Haze. She shouldn’t feel like she has to forgive herself, but she does and she does.

Reading Lolita was traumatic and awful for me, an experience that up until now I’d have undone if I could, but this book helped and healed and made it worthwhile.

I do not recommend this book unilaterally. I recommend this only to anyone who can handle it, who needs it, who wants it. I, for example, should not have read this at an unsteady time in my life, and I’d warn anyone considering doing so away from that.

But I do recommend it. (That’s my bottom line.)

Also I just want to say: Anyone who has the guts to accuse someone of plagiarism when they haven’t even read the book they’re assuming was stolen from them...mad props I guess.


took some time to think about this rating and know it's at least 4.5 or 5. so review and final rating to come but here are all these stars, for now.


Reading this, I had to take breaks, stop to watch silly videos and look at memes and play Animal Crossing between pages, in an attempt to prevent the words from traveling too deep. The second I finished, I burst into sudden and unexpected tears, gone in thirty seconds but still there, still felt and surprising.

I’m not sure yet if I’m glad I read it.

review & rating to come

tbr review

me: *anticipated this book for months*

also me: *is now scared to read it*
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,990 reviews298k followers
March 10, 2020
"I think we're very similar, Nessa," he whispers. "From the way you write, I can tell you're a dark romantic like me. You like dark things."

3 1/2 stars. I really really want to give this book a higher rating, but I cannot justify it when it is almost twice as long as it needed to be.

My Dark Vanessa has many powerful moments. It's a discomfiting, horrible story about an adult woman reevaluating the relationship she had with her English teacher when she was a teenager. It is reminiscent of The Tale and, of course, Lolita, which features heavily throughout. Teenage Vanessa reads Lolita as a forbidden romance in which the titular protagonist is a cruel seductress, but adult Vanessa begins to question that reasoning.

The real power of this book is that it allows the reader to see how Vanessa truly falls for her abuser. In the chapters where we relive her teenage years, we are inside her head and experiencing his manipulation firsthand. It is enticing. It makes this lonely girl feel special, intelligent and wanted. She's not stupid; she's heard of rapists and child abusers. But this is why Jacob Strane gets away with it, why many abusers get away with it, because they convince their victims they are the exception to the rule.

And how exciting it is for a young girl to be the exception to the rule! To be the one - and, surely, the only one - that could make a good man stray from the righteous path. We see how well he seduces her into thinking that they are two dark and lonely souls meant for each other in this cruel, cruel world. How could anyone else possibly understand them?

I've almost talked myself into upping my rating by writing this review. But here's the thing: this book should have been a novella. I don't know if there's a specific reason why the author shied away from writing a novella - are they harder to publish? - but this story most certainly is one. After a while, there are long, mind-numbing stretches of boring repetition and superfluous detail. So many things go on for too long. Vanessa's relationship with Henry when she goes to a different school felt, at best, drawn out, at worst it was completely unnecessary.

All of the secondary characters - and there are quite a few - were one-dimensional. Every single one. There was a chunk in the middle that seemed to alternate between Nessa and Strane having revolting sexual encounters and long boring details of Vanessa's school and social life. And for a book that spends so much time turning every detail of her life inside out, it seems to end very abruptly.

But I will return to some positives because I am reluctant to end this review on a negative. I thought it was excellent and very sad how the author showed the long-term effects of the abuse on Vanessa's whole life - her relationships, her career, and her sexuality. It is so heart-wrenching and disturbing when Vanessa catches herself imagining she is a young girl for sexual gratification and wonders if she, too, is a pervert.

I do recommend this book still. I think it has a lot of important things to say and it cut me very deep. It's just a shame that there is so much unnecessary padding.

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Profile Image for Nilufer Ozmekik.
2,303 reviews43.9k followers
November 9, 2022
Truth… I started this book so many times and after few pages, I felt suffocated, my stomach churned, sharp pain twisted my heart and I dropped it… This happened several times and I tried to
gather my wits, wear my big girl’s pants and breathe in breathe out several times deeply!

And I started again… This is most disturbing, painful, heart bleeding, psychologically consuming, complex, soul crushing, life changing story I’ve been lately read! It’s harsh, raw, realistic, provocative, brave, dark, bleak, terrifying! The words like glass pieces cut through your mind and you don’t drop tears for Vanessa, you just bleed out as like she does mentally throughout her journey.

When she was only 15, Vanessa meets Jacob Strane, 44 years teacher at Browick School in Norumbega, Maine, in 2000. Jacob was cunny man who knew exactly what he was getting himself into. Vanessa felt more special, unique, free and braver with him. But that was not true and she knows it. She was a prey, manipulated, deceived, raped, brainwashed. Jacob was evil smart, insisting they were soul mates, feeding her with literature masterpieces from Sylvia Plath to Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent. He was vile, he was the predator and there was nothing about love, passion about his motives. He just took, took and took till there was nothing left from Vanessa’s pure soul.

I know most of the teenagers aware about their sexual awakenings in younger ages. They may reach anything, even the graphic and erotic images from websites, reading articles, experiencing so many things. They might be wiser from our younger versions, thanks to website, online and school educations and the parents’ open-minded, friendly approaches and communicative ways. But that doesn’t mean they’re not innocent, naïve and they are vulnerable. They can still easily hurt. And the emotional, sharp scars they carry always stay in their hearts throughout their life journey.

From moving back and forth between 2000 and 2017 for understanding what kind of tremendous damage he created at Vanessa’s bleeding soul, crying heart and unbalanced mental moods. She told us her heartbreaking, dark journey from a dark, twisted, tarnished, exhausted mental state. At 2017, Vanessa stuck with her dead end day time job, getting therapy sessions for the grief after she lost her father. She meets Jacob at a coffee shop and she realizes she feels the same about him after 17 years. But Jacob has secret agenda to engage with her. There is a misconduct case against him about sexual abusing his former student. All the details posted on Facebook. Did he do that? But Vanessa thought she was special. She was the only one. What a minute! Was she also abused? Did he use her for his own sexual benefits? Wasn’t their relationship special or did they ever have a real relationship?

What if you know anything about love consists of twisted abuse, manipulation and dirty lies? How Vanessa move on her life? How can she form a real, normal bounding with other human being? How can she learn to trust any other people when the person she most loved is a shameless liar?

I couldn’t stop breathing even though the words cut my heart into tiny pieces and crushes my mind with sledgehammer. I hurt. I ached. I cursed. I punched the wall. I screamed. But… sigh… sigh… sigh… I love this book. I truly love it. It’s more than five starred reading but it’s not for everyone. It will take at least one week to gather myself! I’m overwhelmed. I’m so tired! This book shattered me! I think I stop everything, resume sitting on the floor, giving blank looks for days. Oh Kate Elizabeth Russell, you ruined me for other books!

Profile Image for Yun.
521 reviews21.7k followers
January 2, 2023
Equal parts disturbing and riveting, My Dark Vanessa demanded my whole attention from the very first page. It's an undeniably important story that deserves to be told. But I come out of it reeling because it wasn't quite the story I thought I would be reading.

A troubled and lonely fifteen-year-old girl is singled out by her forty-two-year-old English teacher for special attention. He grooms her and manipulates her into being emotionally entangled with him. After a while, their relationship turns physical and sexual and clearly abusive.

Obviously, this is a graphic story and comes with all the trigger warnings you'd expect from something like this. Reading it was hard, and it was even more so to see firsthand how all the adults in Vanessa's life failed her, not just her abuser. There were so many signs that things were going wrong, yet her parents, her school, her other teachers, they all turned a blind eye so as not to cause trouble. As a result, they enabled and normalized the abuse and made Vanessa feel like she had no one to turn to.

But for me, it was her later life that was even harder to read. The author did not shy away from exploring the long-term affects of abuse. Vanessa reaches adulthood, and yet, she couldn't get away. She keeps going back for more, even though her abuser tries to cut off ties with her. He starts off as the aggressor, but their roles slowly become muddled. She obsesses over him, stalks him, reels him back in to their unhealthy relationship even though he tries to get out. When he doesn't give her the attention she craves, she tries to recreate their relationship with someone else.

To say Vanessa is the unwitting recipient through it all is to take the easy way out. And the author doesn't do that. Instead, she paints a complex, morally fraught, thought-provoking picture of abuse in all of its forms and consequences. Of course Vanessa starts out as a child and is initially the victim of her circumstances. But what about when she's in her twenties, or thirties? Can she ever truly move on, or has the abuse she endured robbed her of her agency and her ability to accept help and heal? There are no easy answers here, only uncomfortable questions.

This was such a distressing and unsettling read, and it left me torn up inside. It starts from a place that I was expecting and veers into a direction that was even darker and more complex than at first glance. Yet, through it all, I couldn't look away. It's definitely one of those memorable reads that will stay with me for a long time.
Profile Image for Kat.
270 reviews80k followers
February 23, 2021
This book was difficult. Difficult to read, and even more difficult to determine how I felt at the end. I remember a lot of discussion surrounding My Dark Vanessa upon its release last year, and while this review will be as in depth as I can manage, I think this is a story that can be taken multiple ways, without anyone being totally right or wrong in their own interpretation.

So, on with my thoughts. My Dark Vanessa is certainly not an easy book and I get why some readers have found it to be over the top regarding the descriptions of abuse that the main character faces. I don’t share that same opinion entirely, but there were moments when I questioned the sheer number of rape scenes that Kate Elizabeth Russell chose to include, and/or the gratutious level of detail they held; because even without explicitly showing the brutal assaults on Vanessa’s autonomy, her “relationship” with Strane was awful and his pedophilia was always obvious to the reader, as was its effect on 15 y/o Vanessa.

I think it is arguable that the earlier timeline alone could be seen as a revamp of other stories...so noticeably similar in events that occur, and adding very little to set itself apart. That’s not necessarily a fault, as it reflects continuous cycles of predation and connecting patterns seen in real accounts. But, the real power of this novel (imo) lies in the inclusion of Vanessa's adult years. Seeing all the ways that Strane’s manipulation impacted her, up until the point that contact was finally severed between them, and what remnants manifested in daily thoughts/actions was heartbreaking. However, by bringing the plot into 2017 and applying a modernized lens to the past, Vanessa reaches out to the reader and draws them into her story in a new way. It allows for a spotlight to be placed on the long term effects of trauma, and simultaneously provides a glimpse of Vanessa's development moving towards the end of the book.

So, tl;dr: this is an incredibly challenging read, something that I constantly wanted to put down but also couldn’t look away from. I think that the exploration of such a difficult topic was well done (for the most part), but I would recommend it sparingly as the content definitely won’t be received the same way by everyone.
Profile Image for Cindy.
407 reviews116k followers
August 10, 2020
Tragic, dark, repulsive, and infuriating, this book dives deep into the complexities of abusive relationships, grooming, and trauma. There are complicated layers that I think the author does well in putting together: the timely pop culture references to show how pervasive the culture of sexualizing young girls is; the side characters that add to the complicity of fostering that culture; the way the #MeToo movement gets co-opted by journalism and clickbait; how victimhood is encouraged and hailed automatically for women; the way we minimize trauma in order to cope with it; etc… So many of the elements in this story come from a real place, and its character study is handled realistically. What encouraged me to bump my rating to 5 stars, ultimately, is the ending and its realism in quietly and slowly learning how to piece yourself back together.
Profile Image for Lisa of Troy.
432 reviews4,231 followers
August 24, 2023
My Dark Vanessa is Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel, a fictional story where a fifteen-year-old Vanessa enters into a relationship with her much older teacher. The book has two different timelines, the present-day timeline and a back-in-the-day timeline.

My Dark Vanessa perfectly captures the complex feelings regarding the relationship without being preachy. It really explains why anyone would enter into and continue an unhealthy relationship. First, Vanessa goes off to an elite boarding school. Talk about a stressful situation! She is away from her family, her home, everything that is familiar to her. She leaves her school and all of her friends behind. No one at boarding school even seems to notice her. Vanessa is completely isolated and alone.

In walks this teacher. He is whispering literature into her ear and telling her how special and unique she is.

Another complexity hitting Vanessa is nostalgia. How many times do we think fondly of the past? If you go to Disney World, you might think, “Wow! That was the happiest day of my life!” But in reality, you stand in line for hours with the sun beating down on you then find yourself in a sudden downpour with your socks filled with water, squelching with every step you take, and the socks never drying because of the humidity. Although you think it is the “happiest day of your life,” you were actually exhausted and ready for the day to be over. The rose-tinted glasses come in handy when looking at the past!

The survivors in this book process their experiences differently. Not all survivors feel that they are victims, and not everyone wants to come forward to share their story. Moreover, some survivors don’t want to be associated with their past anymore, and this book is a great reminder that some may not want to talk about their experience or aren’t ready to go there.

This book mentions Lolita, a novel by Vladimir Nabokova, a bunch of times and rightfully so. In Lolita, the author follows the perspective of the older gentleman. However, in My Dark Vanessa, the reader gets a different perspective, the perspective of the young girl.

In conclusion, although the subject matter is really tough, My Dark Vanessa is a riveting story about a complex relationship. This is a great book for fans of Lolita or The Glass Castle.

2023 Reading Schedule
Jan Alice in Wonderland
Feb Notes from a Small Island
Mar Cloud Atlas
Apr On the Road
May The Color Purple
Jun Bleak House
Jul Bridget Jones’s Diary
Aug Anna Karenina
Sep The Secret History
Oct Brave New World
Nov A Confederacy of Dunces
Dec The Count of Monte Cristo

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Profile Image for Lindsay L.
679 reviews1,322 followers
February 13, 2020
1.5 stars.

I wish I could somehow unread this disturbing book.

My curiosity got the best of me after reading the countless 5 star reviews. It wasn’t a storyline that appealed to me but I had to see what all the buzz was about. After reading halfway through and feeling like I was missing something, I continued on as my curiosity kept pushing me further and had me thinking “this must get better”. Unfortunately, it didn’t get better after halfway, in fact, it got worse. I finished this novel feeling nauseated, upset and frustrated. Not because I was so impacted by the storyline and characters. I felt nauseated, upset and frustrated because I don’t understand a reason for a book like this to be written. What is the author trying to convey? I am definitely missing something here.

The ending was a let down. There was no sense of hope or purpose. There was nothing to feel good about. For me, the story lacked sensitivity and focused on shock factor. The timeline jumped around and lacked flow. As much as the plot disgusted me, I never felt truly connected to the characters or storyline. I felt upset about the situation but no emotional connection to the characters or investment in the storyline.

I don’t like writing negative reviews. I like to focus on the positives, but there simply are no positives for me on this one. I didn’t enjoy the way this story was presented. Please be warned that this is a highly uncomfortable novel that you MUST be prepared for.

This was a Traveling Sister read with Brenda and Mary Beth. We sit at the outlier table together as all three of us felt similar.

Thank you to Edelweiss for the review copy.
Profile Image for Julie .
4,077 reviews59k followers
March 9, 2020
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is a 2020 William Morrow publication.

A powerful novel and one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read

Before reading this review, be aware I made up my mind about any gray areas concerning consent this novel addresses. For me, there are no gray areas. Fifteen year old girl- forty-two year old man- and a figure of authority? Please.

This is a strongly worded review and may step on some toes. I hope you'll stick with me, though. I understand this book has bothered some people, understandably, and some are conflicted about it. I am not conflicted AT ALL- and my review will reflect that. You'll need to take your heart off your sleeve if you wish to continue reading.

By now we’ve all heard the stories and have seen male and female teachers arrested for abusing their positions and embarking on inappropriate relationships with their students. I could tell you stories about things that happened way back when I was in high school, and things that happened at my children’s high school, where teachers crossed lines with their students. It is more widely reported now, almost to the point where it seems commonplace.

While we often get caught up in the feeling of betrayal we have, which is caused by someone we trusted to uphold our values, to be a mentor to our kids by setting an example, and of course, by obeying the law, we overlook the long lasting ramifications for those who were seduced- often with careful manipulation, by these men and women we have entrusted our children to, gradually luring in the most vulnerable with their attentiveness and flattery.

This book explores the psychological damage and the cruel emotional trauma left on one young victim, Vanessa Wye, who at fifteen, was seduced by Jacob Strane, a forty-two -year old teacher, at her school.

These emotional scars never fully healed, continuously reopened, constantly bleeding, and infecting this young woman, who simply could not move forward and live up to her full potential- nor could she maintain friendships or a normal relationship with another man, and simply could not admit to what is so obvious to others.

"Because even if I sometimes use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else's mouth the word turns ugly and absolute....It swallows me and all the times I wanted it, begged for it"

Jacob Strane is vile. Period. His kind are far too common, and often infiltrate places where they have easy access to those they wish to lure into their web of seduction. What many fail to understand, is that although young people today are far more knowledgeable, mature much faster, and are exposed to erotic images and information daily, they put on a brave face, never admitting they might not have everything under control. They are perhaps much more desensitized, and jaded, seemingly confident and comfortable with the onslaught of information that surrounds them.

Don’t let them fool you. They are as vulnerable, sensitive, confused and insecure as ever. They cope with incredible pressure to conform, be accepted, and to do things they are emotionally unprepared for.

They are just as capable of falling under the spell of someone older, seemingly more sophisticated, someone they admire or look up to, whose attention is flattering and alluring, as more innocent generations before them. It can be quite heady and intense, making it hard for them to fully understand that they are indeed the victim in all this.

Vanessa, who is often paralleled with Lolita or, in some cases it might be a juxtaposition, falls straight into Jacob’s trap, as we helplessly stand by and watch.

It’s a struggle to see her life spiral out of control, and resign herself to a life of dark obsession, and living well below her intellectual means.

The psychological damage Vanessa endures is the reason I gave this book five stars. I know the book will be controversial. I know it is not for everyone. It will generate heaven only knows what kind of reaction once it hits bookstores, but I think it is an important examination, even if it is a work of fiction. It’s a portrayal we should welcome, as it proves many points women have been trying to stress for ages.

Crawling inside the mind of a predator is not easy- it’s not supposed to be. This book is not one you ‘enjoy’. It’s a book that should make one feel extremely uncomfortable, one that makes you squirm in your seat. It is supposed to have that type of deep effect on you. In fact, it took me a very long time to read this novel because I had to take frequent breaks from it.

When you enter Vanessa’s world, you will be transported into a deep, dark, twisted place and you will long to escape from it. But, remember, there are many, many, many real life ‘Vanessa’s’ out there. They, too, long to escape from it- only for them, it’s not a book they can put down at any time and simply walk away from it because it was just too upsetting...

Overall, this book is just downright chilling, and left me feeling shaken and very emotional. While it is not an easy novel, it is one I recommend reading, if you can. It is very thought-provoking, and I can see it bringing out some pretty intense discussions for book clubs.

Vanessa’s portrait is utterly heartbreaking. Her view of the situation- again, too common. She put everything on herself, and our society continues to enable that feeling of shame and guilt, and even goes so far as to threaten and warn off anyone who might think of doing otherwise. As others have pointed out, this book shows why recent movements like #MeToo, resonated with so many people and is another reason why I feel it is a worthy five -star book.

*Content warning

Shouldn’t need to even say it, but- if you have certain triggers this is NOT the book for you. I’ve written and re-written this review many times, and have toned down my frustrations, knowing my words might offend some. But, please, please, please- if you suspect a situation is not appropriate, under any circumstances, with your child, sibling, friend or colleague, don’t hesitate to listen, to hear them, to intervene or report your concerns to those who have the authority to do so- or encourage them to come forward or seek help. The details may be upsetting to hear, but your courage just might save someone you love from becoming another ‘Vanessa’.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Melanie.
1,172 reviews98.8k followers
June 22, 2023
This was one of the hardest books I've ever read. But I will say that the ending might feel really heartbreaking and disappointing, but that is because we live in a heartbreaking and disappointing reality. There is no wrong way to heal and live through horrible things that were done to you, and there is no time limit either.

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Content and Trigger Warnings: rape, pedophilia, gaslighting, sexual assault, physical abuse, grieving, child pornography mention/acts, talk of suicide, suicide, fatphobic comments, disordered eating, brief but very horrible mention at other child abuse things, blood depiction, and overall this is just a very dark book that will most likely make you very uncomfortable to read so please use caution.
Profile Image for jessica.
2,555 reviews35.6k followers
March 29, 2020
im really struggling with this rating/review because i dont want anything negative that i say to belittle or disregard someone who is able to relate to this story personally or see themselves in vanessas position.

grooming, predatory behaviour, sexual assault, and victim statements are all topics that are extremely important and should not be taken lightly. i dont want my review or opinion of this work of fiction to be synonymous with how i view these things in real life. because thats not the case.

that being said, i found this story to be extremely boring. with a subject as important as this, i want to be emotionally evoked. i want to experience anger and sadness and empathy, but all i am left is feeling indifferent. the writing is so drawn out with so much unnecessary filler, that i just didnt get anything out of it. i understand how the modern day setting and events couldnt be more relevant, but honestly, i could just go read ‘lolita’ and get the same exact story.

again, i understand the sensitivity of the topic and i can appreciate the much needed discussion this story will prompt. but its not the content i have an issue with, its the way its written and portrayed. i guess i was expecting much more from this.

2.5 stars
Profile Image for chloe.
244 reviews28.5k followers
August 29, 2020
this was so hard to read but so so important. i highly recommend it if you're in the right head space/the content won't be triggering to you. can't wait to read more from kate elizabeth russell.

TW: sexual assault, rape, pedophilia, grooming, manipulation, gaslighting, victim shaming
Profile Image for Melissa ~ Bantering Books.
249 reviews987 followers
February 26, 2021
Be sure to visit Bantering Books to read all my latest reviews.

Take a look at the cover of My Dark Vanessa. (Go on. Look.)

Now, look again. Reeaally look. Longer, this time.

Is it me? Or does the photo not just say it all? Personally, I find the stark image of the woman’s face to be one of the saddest, most hauntingly beautiful photographs I have ever seen. Her melancholy expression instantly grabs one’s attention; her evident pain draws the observer in. It’s stunning – and it so artfully, wordlessly captures the devastating essence of Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel.

The narrative recounts the story of Vanessa, who at age 15, begins an illicit seven-year affair with her 42-year-old Literature teacher, Jacob Strane. Through the utilization of dual timelines, the novel essentially has two starting points. The year 2000, at the inception of Vanessa’s relationship with Strane; and the year 2017, at the height of the #MeToo era when Vanessa is forced to reexamine the affair under a more critical light as multiple allegations of abuse by Strane surface to the forefront. She has no choice but to consider anew the culpability of Strane and the contributions of her own actions.

To say that I enjoyed My Dark Vanessa is a bit of a misnomer. For how could I possibly enjoy a tale of a pedophile abusing a 15-year-old girl? Because I didn’t. Yet, I did. Horrendous subject matter aside, the novel is a page turner. It is excellently written. It is compelling and powerful.

But reading it is also an extremely dark, sexually graphic, heartbreaking, and emotionally grueling experience. It’s intentionally so. Russell aims for readers to feel discomfited. She wants us to feel outraged and unnerved as we behold the abuse of Vanessa on the page. She fearlessly shows us the how and the why of it.

And the story rattles us to the core. Because the novel just feels real. It reads authentically. I cannot imagine finding a more honest fictional description of an abusive relationship between a teenage girl and an adult man than the one laid before us in My Dark Vanessa.

We see how Strane chooses Vanessa with purpose and how he grooms her. We view Strane’s manipulation of Vanessa’s feelings, how he expertly reels her in. We observe the formation of a father-daughter bond between them. We bear witness to Strane gaslighting Vanessa and the blame he places on her shoulders, to the point where she can no longer trust her memories and does not know what to believe. We watch Vanessa repeatedly be raped by Strane while he disguises the abuse as love.

Make no mistake. None of what happens to Vanessa is her fault. Not one bit. She is a child when it all begins. She is taken advantage of by an extremely sick man. Period. End of discussion.

And here is where, as a reader, frustration is felt. Because Vanessa doesn’t recognize the abuse. She is symptomatically blind to it, years later, even at the age of 32. She fully believes she is an active, willing participant. The initiator, even. She determinedly clings to Strand and the relationship, considers him to be her one true love. Every fiber of her being defends him.

And no. Strane never rapes her. Not according to Vanessa. She wants it. Needs it. Begs for it.

“‘I can’t lose the thing I’ve held on to for so long. You know?’ My face twists up from the pain of pushing it out. ‘I just really need it to be a love story. You know? I really, really need it to be that.’
‘I know,’ she says.
‘Because if it isn’t a love story, then what is it?’
I look to her glassy eyes, her face of wide-open empathy.
‘It’s my life,’ I say. ‘This has been my whole life.’”

It’s unbelievably sad how the abuse does, in fact, frame Vanessa’s entire life. It affects her family, her adult romantic relationships, her friendships. The psychological and emotional damage Strane inflicts on Vanessa is permanent and unwavering. She is a fractured woman, with sharp, jagged edges.

My Dark Vanessa is a novel that is difficult to fully, wholeheartedly recommend due to the subject matter and graphic nature of the story. I recognize that not every reader will be able to tolerate it. But I believe it is an important novel and should be read by those who can mentally endure it.

Vanessa’s story will widen your eyes and cause your mouth to gape open in horror. It will churn your stomach. You will long to wrap yourself in nothing but warmth, light, and happiness once you finish reading it.

But you will likely neither regret, nor ever forget, the time you spent with Vanessa. I don’t. I won’t. Not one single minute of it.

I think you will find it to be time well spent, reading a story well told.

Bantering Books
Profile Image for Dr. Appu Sasidharan (Dasfill).
1,265 reviews2,439 followers
May 25, 2022
This is unequivocally the most disturbing book I read this year.

What is this book about?
We can tell the crux of this novel in just a single sentence. It is the story of Vanessa, a 15-year-old and her "relationship" with her 42-year-old English teacher Jacob Strane. The actual theme of this book can't be construed like that because this book has too many dimensions, of which we can comprehend only a few.

1) Is it a story of an innocent teenager exploited by an older person?

2) Is it a story of a relationship between a young girl and old guy?

3) Is it a story of an introvert with a shady character exploited by a predator?

4) Is it a story of a relationship between two people who have psychological dark triad (narcissism, machiavellianism and psychopathy)?

5) Is it a story of a young lady whose subconscious mind knows that she is getting exploited, but her conscious mind is trying to mask it in the disguise of a love story?

6) Is it a story of manipulation, gaslighting and triangulation to the extreme level by a man to an easy young obvious target?

A journey into the complicated mind of Vanessa
These are some excerpts from the novel regarding Vanessa's character.

1)"When Strane and I met, I described the age difference back then - perfect. 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 inside his brain, another around his heart, the third turned to liquid and sliding through his veins."

2) "I wanted nothing to do with boys my own age, their dandruff and acne, how cruel they could be, cutting girls up into feature, rating our body parts on a scale of one to ten, I wasn't made for them. I loved Strane's middle-aged caution, his slow courtship."

3) "I was sprawled in the hammock with my headphones on, listening to songs guaranteed to make me cry. Mom says dwelling in your feelings is no way to live, that there will always be something to be upset about and the secret to a happy life is not to let yourself be dragged down into negativity. She doesn't understand how satisfying sadness can be; hours spent rocking in the hammock with Fiona Apple in my ears make me feel better than happy."

4) "My worst habit, according to my mother, is how I deflect compliments with self-depreciation. I need to learn how to accept praise. It boils down to confidence, she says or lack thereof."

5)These are the excerpts from the novel showing Vanessa's mental acumen

A journey into the complicated mind of Jacob Strane
We can see that Strane had a troublesome childhood. When Vanessa asked him about his mother, he said, "She was a very angry woman. She didn't care for me, and I could never figure out why." It takes no effort to diagnose that Strane was having a personality disorder from the amount of manipulation and gaslighting he was doing on Vanessa and other girls. It is not ethical for me to diagnose the disorder of a fictional character in a book review online. So I am leaving it to you, the readers the liberty to diagnose what he had while you are reading this novel. I will give a table that might help you. 2-A21-DA4-C-FF45-4-EEB-84-B6-D12066-CD7-AD1

Social relevance
This story is set in the background of #me too movement and the revelations. We can clearly see that Strane was giving her ideas and making her do it by making her believe that she was in charge. Even though she understood about it in the latter part of her life, she still was not ready to reveal her story to the public. Was she gaslighted into senselessness? Was she scared of the humiliating question of Tell us what exactly he did to you? Even when Strane was pictured as a victim of the tyranny of feminism and people went after Taylor, she was not ready to reveal her story. Was she selfish? Was she afraid? This novel is raising a lot of socially relevant questions which the author was able to answer to some extend via the protagonist itself towards the end. As Henry said in the novel, "Is Vanessa an enigma impossible to understand?” As Ruby mentioned in the novel, does she has to continue to stumble through life feeling like an empty husk of a person, drinking herself into oblivion? After reading this novel, if we consider the trauma she had to go through, we can never blame Vanessa for anything she did or anything she didn't do. Kate Elizabeth Russel did an extraordinary job of portraying Vanessa's life with all the intricacies and confusions she had to face.

One of the first few things we will think while reading this book is whether the novelist was writing her own life experience in this novel. It seems impossible to write this story in so much depth unless you are a medically or legally trained person who deals with similar cases or you or your closed one had such a devastating experience. But nowhere in any part of the novel, it is mentioned that this novel had its inspiration from true events. I respect the privacy of the author, whether to mention it or not. There were many things like accusations of plagiarism and twitter battle going on behind the scenes of this novel

1) Wendy C. Ortiz vs Kate Elizabeth Russell
Author Wendy C. Ortiz wrote that the premise and marketing for My Dark Vanessa were similar to that of her 2014 memoir Excavation, about her teenage sexual experiences with an English teacher. The people in Twitter were levelling plagiarism charges at Russell and accusing her of being another white author co-opting and profiting from the experiences of marginalised communities and castigated her. Ortiz told that Russell had told her she’d read Excavation –alongside other material (naturally) in the 20 years she spent writing My Dark Vanessa. Only Russell and Ortiz knows what the actual truth is regarding this matter.

2) Plagiarism
Ortiz was careful not to use the P-word, but still, she questioned Russel in writing a novel about sexual abuse and for "mining books that deal with the subject" in order to write it. The Twitter mob was also harsh against Russel accusing her of plagiarism. Strangely, she had to face severe backlash from social media like the character called Taylor she created in this novel.

3) Racism
There is a predominance of white people in the publishing industry in the UK and the USA. Ortiz says that the editors told her that it would be too difficult to market her book Excavation to a wide readership, she was right in understanding that to mean a "white" one. She is saying that Latinx authors are made to write only what is expected from a book written by them. If it won't meet the requirements publisher won't take the risk of publishing it. She said, "Instead of asking why someone would write a novel about sexual abuse, a better question is: why does the industry think it can’t sell a memoir from a Latinx writer about this issue? What do they believe readers expect from such a memoir, and why are they unwilling to challenge those assumptions?"

4)Policing of novelists

It is sad to know that people demanded Russell to say whether the novel was her own life experience when all these controversies happened. Russell was forced to reveal that she lived through the experience her novel represented when she was a teenager. She wrote, “I do not believe that we should compel victims to share the details of their personal trauma with the public. Opening up further about my past would invite inquiry that could be re-traumatising”. It is pathetic to see people saying that you might have lived trauma if you want to write a novel about it and policing the novelists.

The only negative I can see in this novel is that the middle portion of it is not perfectly edited. Apart from that, this is an extraordinary novel with multiple dimensions which came out at the right time that everyone should read. I must warn you that this book is not everyone's cup of tea. Only brave and strong people will be able to finish it. I suggest you to pick up this book only when you are having a good day, and you are in the right mood. Otherwise, you will end up feeling devastated.

Edit : Many of my friends asked me whether this book is suitable for the teenage age group. I am adding my reply to it in this review

Some scenes in this book are explicit and extremely disturbing for even adults. Even though it is a great book, I will never recommend it to teenagers below 18 years. But, I will strongly recommend it to anyone above 18 years, especially to the parents of teenagers.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews598 followers
December 12, 2019
Year: 2000
Vanessa, 15 years of age,
grew up in a quiet small town in Maine - on
Whalesback Lake.
She attended Browick High School - a boarding school...couple hours away from her home. Too young to drive- her mother usually drove her to school and picked her back up to come home during holiday breaks.
Early in the book I wondered if Vanessa’s mother had serious reasons to worry about her daughter’s basic state of well-being...or if the mother was just being a typical mom. ( “make some friends”, yada, yada).
As a mother - I was sure the mother saw red-flag signs that her daughter was hurting inside. But... mom didn’t do anything.
What could she do?
“Just make friends”, mom tells her daughter.

One morning, Vanessa walked through campus several times trying to calm herself.
It was early September....
Most students noticed the beautiful surroundings - the colorful mountains and colorful maple leaves - groups of students sat outside together - studying- laughing - socializing.
Vanessa was
‘feeling restless’....
...unsatisfied.... alone and disconnected from other students.
I could feel her anxiety- how uncomfortable she felt in her own skin.
Vanessa couldn’t find a place to put ‘herself’.
The library was too dark. Her dorm room was too depressing.
Every place she walked seemed to be crowded with people studying in groups, highlighting how very alone, Vanessa felt.
Vanessa ‘forced’ herself to stop - sit down - at a grassy slope behind the humanities building to calm herself. “Breathe”... she tells herself.
So with ‘already’ being on edge, (depressed really),....
Vanessa sits down - leans against a tree, reaches into her backpack to pull out her spiral notebook to begin working on a poem she’s writing.....
Footsteps were soon approaching....
Mr. Strane noticed Vanessa from above- looking out his window. He came to join her.

Vanessa was reading a poem that she was working on (interesting her poem was about a girl ‘strapped’ on an island)....
I could feel how critical Vanessa was of
her work, her writing, and of herself. Self-esteem was at an all-time low.
Mr. Strane notices Vanessa’s red-rimmed eyes and says: “You’re Upset”...
“Can I ask what’s upsetting you?”.
Vanessa thinks her problems are too big to explain.
Frustrated Vanessa tells Mr. Strane that her poem is bad, and that she can’t even pick a study spot without exhausting herself.
She tries to share how dark she feels. Mr. Strane is intensely listening.
Vanessa was seriously fearful that she could never fix herself.
I wanted her to call her mom!!!
Maybe with Mr. Strane’s help, acknowledgment, extra attention to her.... Vanessa could begin to feel stronger and more confident?
Maybe Vanessa’s fixation on Mr. Strane- Harvard graduate- passionate about literature - might be a positive mentor for her?
Ha...we don’t fool easy.

At 15... away from home at a boarding school...
what stood out to me was how painfully alone and vulnerable Vanessa was.
I wanted somebody to help her - really help her.

As the reader.... we are cringing - witnessing the rabbit hole Vanessa is about to fall through.

As painful as it was to know what was coming -
a disturbing - inappropriate entanglement between a 15 year old impressionable girl and a 42 year old teacher -
A story as old as ever....
I couldn’t pull myself away from this book!
The writing/ storytelling is seductively addictive and gripping.
Honestly ‘the best’ ( call it what you want- MeToo?) novel - I’ve ever read!!!
I just know - this novel gets soooo inside your own skin!!!

In another scene, Mr. Strane says to Vanessa:
I think we’re very similar, Nessa, he whispers. I can tell from the way you write that you’re a dark romantic like me. You like dark things”.
“Shielded by the desk, he reaches down and pats my knee gently, gingerly, the way you might a dog before you’re sure it won’t turn mean and bite you.
I don’t bite him. I don’t move. I don’t even breathe. He keeps writing notes on the poem while his other hand strokes my knee and my mind slips out of me”.

Year 2017:
Vanessa Wye is 32 years of age.
She meets Jacob Strane, in a coffee shop. It’s been five years since the last time she’d seen him. Seventeen years since she was his student/‘girl-thing’.

When Vanessa first sees Strane again...years later..
she feels the same way she did when she was 15 - and he was 42. ( attraction)
Throwing her arms around the much older Strane, when they catch up....he had that same coffee and chalk dust smell he did when she was his student.

Jacob Strand was accused of sexually abusing a former student. It’s posted all over Facebook.
At first Vanessa defends Strane. She believes that she willingly engaged in a relationship with him.
Vanessa believed that she and Mr. Strane had a ‘special’ relationship.
They still connected with each other by phone - well into her adulthood.

This book is impossible to put down.
I gave up the outdoors - summer daylight hours in exchange for being an addictive-daytime reading-couch-potato.
I felt a pull - an urgency - an importance - to marathon read this book!

I want to scream to other readers - “this is sooooooo GOOD... a MUST READ”...
which it is ... ITS REALLY GOOD and WORTHY of being called a BUZZ BOOK....
But... ‘really good’, are not really the right words to describe our feelings about the book’s complexities.

The novel’s achievement is *deeply affecting*.... *genuinely and significantly*
*emotionally wrenching* yet *intellectually rigorous*.

‘Stephen King’ said, this novel is:
“A well-constructed package of *dynamite*”.

Is the difference between rape and sex a state of mind? You can’t rape the willing, right?”

Kate Elizabeth Russell’s writing is engrossing...
The characters she creates are so hauntingly real!!!

When young girls, or women, love their abuser... excuses made for them are outrageous, but they’re nothing compared with the excuses made about themselves.

If this book doesn’t have you looking at sexual abusers vs. sexual consent in new ways ...then I’ll eat my hat.

Big thanks to HarperCollins
Publishing for an advance copy of this extraordinary novel...(released in January, 2020)

Powerful... powerful...powerful!!!!

“Out of ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air”...
from the book “Ariel”, by Sylvia Plath
Profile Image for Kim ~ It’s All About the Thrill.
571 reviews618 followers
October 8, 2019
I completely underestimated how dark this book was actually going to be. Clearly the title is an indicator. If you didn't catch on from the title, well there is a sensational book description that makes it clear what the subject matter was going to be. Yet....I was still deeply disturbed by what I was reading. I can't stress how dark, disturbing and difficult this was to read. That being said, I could not put this down. I am not even sure I can muster the words to give this book the review that it deserves. It was just that powerful.

After reading this, I can see why the author specifically stated that this is not a story about herself, or anyone that she personally knows for that matter. It is just about all the girls like Vanessa in the world. I have decided the reason this book was so incredibly hard to read is because it is so real. Somehow this debut author has managed to make Vanessa so damn real that you would swear she was writing her own story. You would swear Vanessa was typing her story furiously onto the pages, perhaps in a diary.

With the whole "me too" movement we have heard many different voices. Yet this story managed to floor me. It was from Vanessa's point of view, that she was not a victim. That she had chosen to get into a relationship with her English instructor Jacob Strane. I had never given this consideration that the victim would not realize they were the victim. She was clearly the victim of this vile, disgusting man that used his power and position to lure Vanessa in. What if the victim doesn't realize it? She sees it as a "love story." She thinks he is kind and caring, impressed that he would take the time to notice her- that she is special.

My emotions were all over the place reading this. This invoked such an array of feelings in me. I was distraught, disgusted, angry and sad. Being a 15 year girl many years ago, I can see how Vanessa was realizing that she had a power over men. How she was just discovering that she could make them look her way. Some of the details are so graphic I considered putting down the book and taking a break from it as I felt I really couldn't endure any more of it. Except I couldn't put it down. I had to know how this ended for Vanessa.

I very rarely get this emotionally involved in a book, but this one destroyed me. That being said- it is a must read! It will be hard to read the graphic details, but it is hard because you know this is the truth. This is what is happening to girls like Vanessa every day. The author spun a story that so uniquely shows a glimpse into the victim's mind. A victim that doesn't even realize she is a victim or is she just telling herself that to protect herself?

Thank you so much to Harper Collins/ William Morrow for this advance copy via Edelweiss
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,708 reviews25k followers
November 7, 2019
My Dark Vanessa is a dark, deeply disturbing and unsettling novel that captures the zeitgeist of our contemporary realities of the #MeToo movement, looking at the complexities and emotional repercussions of a 'love' affair between a lonely schoolgirl, anxious, suffering the loss of her closest friend, with self esteem issues, desperate for attention, with a much older, manipulative and predatory male who zeroes in on her vulnerabilities. This uncomfortable book examines the psychological and sexual anatomy of a relationship between 15 year old Vanessa Wye and her 45 year old English teacher, Jacob Strane, how it all began, and his prophetic words that he will 'ruin' her. At 32 years old, Vanessa is seeing a therapist to deal with her grief over the loss of her father, working in a dead end hotel job, and Strane is having to deal with the fallout of a former student, Taylor Birch, having gone public with allegations of abuse. He needs to know that he has nothing to worry about from Vanessa. She reassures him, despite feeling the pressures of a climate to be honest about male behaviours and attitudes.

In a narrative that goes back and forth in time, we see that Vanessa's relationship with Strane is the axiomatic and pivotal one of her life, she has never got over him, he has been her obsession but what is the nature of the ties that bind her to him so irrevocably? She is herself not certain of who they were in the past, what exactly happened and what they are now, her memories are confused, fractured and questionable when it comes to reliability. She has invested so much of who she is in him and she has to believe it was love, if she begins to question this, her sense of self, her identity, threatens to splinter apart. She feels the outside world is too quick to judge, and fails to appreciate that feelings, sex and love cannot be compartmentalised and categorised so rigidly according to society's norms, humanity is far more complicated and flawed. She has power, control, and desires, she chose Strane, she is no victim, she is the love of his life, special and irreplaceable. But what if she hasn't seen him clearly? What if she is one of many girls targeted by Strane?

Strane abuses his position of influence to groom young, naive, susceptible school girls, the nightmare of every parent, using the panoply of literary greats in his arsenal of weapons against the immature young girl, a history of writers who had relationships with young girls. A literary chorus (all men) of precedents, approval and support from history and the arts to legitimise Strane's darker desires for young female flesh and the wider communities complicity in this widespread practice. This includes the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Frost, and Nabokov's Pale Fire, his references to 'My Dark Vanessa', and Lolita is, of course, central, all adding their weight to the inevitability and righteousness of Vanessa and Strane's unconventional dark 'romantic' relationship, particularly in Vanessa's malleable mind. Strane gaslights with no qualms, his rewriting of their personal history, of how Vanessa had control, equal power and green lit every step of their relationship, are critical self serving and self protective strategies.

This is a challenging read, I had to make myself finish the book, but it is thought provoking in its portrayal of one of the burning issues of our day. I have no doubts this is a book that it is going to be huge on publication. Highly recommended. Many thanks to HarperCollins 4th Estate for an ARC.
Profile Image for Reading_ Tamishly.
4,452 reviews2,400 followers
September 20, 2023
This is exactly the story why parents are so concerned about their kids being in a difficult situation and suffer without having a voice to speak about it.

But this is also the story telling the adults, the young as well as the society to educate and make us aware about the lurking dangers of the "safe" world we are pushing our kids into.

Just pick up this book whenever you are ready to read a book that will make you think only about the book. It's going to be serious. Yes, frustrating. Yes, infuriating. But you will also understand the characters

You will realise how realistic this book gets as you go on reading. I won't say this is just some fiction.

Kudos to the author for keeping the writing so engaging and real. It kept me hooked from the very first page to the very last line and I ended up absorbing whatever I could from the acknowledgements too!

The book is not about being a victim, trying to blame who's wrong but being the best of a story that brings up possible different outlook from those who are concerned: the victims, the criminals/the paedophiles who are their teachers or someone similar in authority, the parents, the schools, the after effects and the need for therapy.

The story perfectly portrays the fine line between the idea of young, wild love versus the young being manipulated by someone older making them believe there's nothing wrong in it.

There are so many topics in this book to discuss about with your peers, your family as well as your colleagues because we need to talk about it. Unless we do, there will be more Vanessas who will continue on with their lives suffering without having anyone to listen to them and understand.
Profile Image for Charlotte May.
720 reviews1,113 followers
July 6, 2020
This book broke me open and sucker punched my internal organs.

“He worships me - his dark Vanessa. I’m lucky to have this, to be so loved.”

THIS is how to write a book about an abusive relationship between a grown man and a child. Not Lolita. Lolita can fuck off. (I hated that book - in case you can’t tell.)

Vanessa is 15 years old when she begins a sexual relationship with her 42 year old English teacher Jacob Strane. We read everything that goes on, how he lured her and ultimately entrapped her both emotionally and physically.

We also have chapters when Vanessa is 32. In the midst of uproar regarding pedophilia and men in positions of power using that to abuse young women and girls. Jacob Strane is one such man under scrutiny for a list of abuse allegations. Vanessa is forced to realise that the relationship she believed to be an epic romance was actually rape. She truly believes Strane loves her. Her mind is so twisted from him it beggars belief. It’s terrifying.

This book handles everything so well. It is horrifyingly graphic in places - but it is necessary in order to get the full picture. To see how Strane emotionally and physically damages her, something that follows her for decades afterward. To read how he convinced himself of innocence was sickening. And how quick people are to disbelieve “silly dramatic girls” over an “upstanding professional man.”

I felt anger, terror, sadness. A whirlwind of emotions. What an outstanding read.

“I need someone to show me the line that’s supposed to separate twenty-seven years older from thirteen years, teacher from professor, criminal from socially acceptable.”
Profile Image for Emily (Books with Emily Fox).
551 reviews60.4k followers
March 3, 2021
Read it because of the hype... probably shouldn't have.

It's well written, it portrays the struggle of the victim very well but it's not a topic that I enjoy reading about.
Profile Image for Mary Beth .
383 reviews1,768 followers
February 26, 2020
1.5 star

I won this book in a Goodreads book giveaway and I was so excited because it was one of my most anticipating reads.

This book was so dark and disturbing. It was one of the most disturbing books that I ever read. This one was way out of my comfort zone. I love books that are dark and disturbing but this one was so unsettling. It stayed with me for a long time and I couldn't get it out of my head. I was so disappointed in this book. This book was not my genre but I saw all the glowing five star reviews and thought that I would love it too. I feel like such a whimp. Now I know that I need to stay in my genres that I love.

This book was so hard to read. My eyes got real big while reading this and my hands covered my face several times while reading it. When I was at the first half of the book, I thought it could only get better but it just got worse.

I am a outlier on this book, so look at all the other reviews. Lots and lots of others loved this book. There are so many glowing five star reviews so make sure that you read them before deciding if you want to read it. I didn't get into the plot because I didn't want to get this in my head again. These are my honest feelings and I wish I loved it like all the others that had the five star reviews. I never expected my rating to be so low. I was shocked. This one was a huge trigger for me. I hate writing negative reviews like this.

This was a Traveling Sister Read and I am just so happy that I read it with Brenda and Lindsay. So glad I didn't read this one alone.
Profile Image for Tina Loves To Read.
2,529 reviews1 follower
March 12, 2023
I have to say this book was not for me. I just could not get into any of the characters. I have to say I really did not like the Vanessa character, and I also did not like the writing style of this book. This book is about a hard subject matter to read, but I read a lot of books about hard hitting topics. So, I know that the subject matter is not what made me not enjoyed this book. I received an ARC of this book. This review is my own honest opinion about the book like all my reviews are.
Profile Image for elena ❀.
303 reviews3,158 followers
May 26, 2021
You go in a girl and come out not quite a woman but close, a girl more conscious of herself and her own power. Self-awareness is a good thing. It leads to confidence, knowing one's place in the world. He made me see myself in a way a boy my own age never could. No one can convince me that I would have been better off if I'd been like the other girls at school, giving blow jobs to hand jobs, all that endless labor, before being deemed a slut and thrown away. At least Strane loved me. At least I knew how it felt to be worshipped. He fell at my feet before he even kissed me.

I have a story that allows me to understand Vanessa's bad decision-making, although it is nothing like hers. I can see, again, how easier it is for men to hold us accountable, to make us feel like we are to blame, to make us feel like we are nothing without them. It's easier for them to control us, to influence us, especially at the age of 15, an age of development and experiences. I lost a part of myself I thought I would never give away.

I lost, with all that, my own trust.

I'm a strong believer in saying books like these need to be written. Books can be centered on very controversial topics, but I think that's the power of them—how they can be the reason you become aware of so many issues happening around the world. Books are empowering, and I think that's the beauty of them. Dark, disturbing books like this one are important to read, especially when we can get inside the brain of the protagonist and see how exactly she makes every choice she makes, what leads her on, and how everything ends.

To be groomed is to be loved and handled like a precious, delicate thing.

It is the year 2000 when Vanessa meets her English teacher. She is instantly drawn into his life, entangled in the mess he already had. She enters her new boarding school with a scholarship in hopes of achieving her goals and not letting herself be put down with her past. But what started as a mild crush and sort of attraction feel then turns into an affair with Jacob to the point where she has nowhere else to go but his side, as though she is lost without him. All through Vanessa's abusive and manipulative events with him, she deceives herself and her family, with her powerless body and life being taken away from her. We slip into Vanessa's mind and see the explanations behind her activities, for her awful dynamic, for her ethics getting too ahead of her.

It is the year 2017 when Vanessa hears about an encounter Jacob Strane has been accused of. Not only is Strane involved, but a rising influx of claims against other men is taking place. Strane has been blamed for sexual assault by a previous student of his, one who contacts Vanessa to ask her about her story. But Vanessa feels as if she does not have a story to tell, as she believes she was not a victim like everyone else thinks she was. Her plan involves an incomprehensible decision: stay quiet, firm in the conviction that her adolescent self willingly let herself be occupied with the relationship, or rethink herself and the occasions of her past. With everything in place, Vanessa can't allow herself to dismiss her first love, the man who trusted her, worshipped her, and loved her. Faced with the past and the present, Vanessa recalls to her past and begins to question her thinking and how she allowed herself to continue trusting the man who openly lied to her.

Inspired by Lolita, My Dark Vanessa explores the connection between a 15-year-old and the affair she is encountered in with her attractive and manipulative instructor. Told through present and past, we see Vanessa grow into a young woman, haunted by her past, exploring her own victimhood, recalling her dark love and pained youthfulness, understanding her consent, and accepting her traumatic abuse.

Trigger/content warnings for sexual abuse, assault and harassment, pedophilia, suicide, substance use, and many more. This book is about a relationship between a 15-year-old and her 45-year-old teacher, so please proceed with caution if necessary.

He wants to make sure he’ll always be there, no matter what. He wants to leave his fingerprints all over me, every piece of muscle and bone.

My Dark Vanessa continues getting glowing stars. It still breaks my heart to say I have not read the loved yet very controversial Lolita, but I promised myself I will one day, especially after reading this and Rust & Stardust. Russell stated Lolita inspired her to write this, and it shows not only how the plot is developed but in how Lolita is referenced in the book itself.

I remember seeing many reviewers stating how they had to put the book down on many occasions to reflect on what was happening. I don't recall stopping and immediately putting the book down because of how disturbing and uncomfortable it made me. As a matter of fact, it was so uncomfortably disturbing that I wanted to continue reading.

Vanessa is goal-oriented at first, innocent and unworthy of causing problems, but stumbles into the life of her teacher not only as her teacher but as her secret lover. Each move she makes is to benefit Mr. Strane. We see how she has no control in her decisions because she believes they will all reflect on Mr. Strane's attitude towards her as they get closer, meaning she constantly put him first, always thinking "But what if" scenarios. She's drawn into his lies and can't harbor the fact that they have to become separated at one point. The author doesn't avoid the solid subject of misuse, assault, and pedophilia, and she does it well. Inspired by Lolita, the book itself and the connection among Lo and Humbert, it conveys an alternate rendition of victimhood and how natural it can be for high school teenagers to give themselves up for the feeling of belonging.

Loneliness is always what a teenager will experience in their high school years. The need to physically prove themselves worthy of something to belong with a group of peers or be noticed by someone higher than them is always haunting. Vanessa is lonely, and she has no companions, nobody to depend on to trust, reveal to her insider facts to and share her work with, aside from her educator. Understanding her necessities and decisions is important to understand her. We see how affected she has been that she believes she has not been affected at all, considering how she and Mr. Strane had a sexual relationship which has her constantly believe it was all of her willingness to do.

But, there is sheer evidence that Vanessa did not want what she got, and she had no control over her situation. The constant fighting of tears and sadness she had to put herself through was mostly what disgusted me. How she knew she was lying to herself and not accepting that she was in a vulnerable position, being taken away from her own body for the cause of someone else showed me how her brain had been taken apart, piece by piece, like her name had been, as if Strane managed to get control of it and take away his doing. She's convinced in the darkest way possible, being a doll Strane can play with, only to break her apart after.

Her constant self-blaming causes her to feel as if the circumstances are her fault. She had a steady battle of tears and trouble that she needed to get herself through caused by the controlling that, even as an adult, Strane had control over. He twisted her so much that she didn't know herself anymore, didn't recognize the 15-year-old she once knew. She was a lost girl who got her childhood taken away by a man who, according to her, loved her.

Her epiphany on realizing how misleading she was being and not tolerating that she was in a powerless position, being taken away from her own body not for the cause of herself but for another person, brought her life back together, and as difficult as the story behind it is, it was hopeful. Jacob persuades her in dark manners, and it was heartbreaking to see how he got away with it and she didn't. Vanessa becomes handily controlled, and it's a constant tragedy having to bear the amount of time it takes her to open her eyes from the reality she was facing.

There is no denying that even at 32-years-old, Vanessa is an idiot, but you can't blame her. She's still seeing Strane, offering herself to him, even with scandal taking over the news involving the other understudy. She is still confiding in him and not herself, even as she reviews her past. It's tragic to see how experiences at 15 will, in every case, mentally influence your regular day to day existence with each progression you take, even with the paths you make for yourself. It's unfortunate how she has to look at her past in this way.

Because even if I sometimes use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else’s mouth the word turns ugly and absolute. It swallows up everything that happened. It swallows me and all the times I wanted it, begged for it. Like the laws that flatten all the sex I had with Strange before I turned eighteen into legal rape—are we supposed to believe that birthday is magic? It's as arbitrary as a marker as any. Doesn't it make sense that some girls are ready sooner?

One thing that bothered me the most was how long the story was. The plot is tedious and repeats scenes we are aware of. It feels as if there are so many scenes regarding Vanessa that could have been shortened, which makes the story less captivating. Yet, the author manages to keep the reader interested in every aspect of the story, despite the fact that we are now aware of it or are anticipating the worst outcomes. Alongside, the message is consistently there, clear and distinctive, and it's awful to witness how Vanessa's heart has been caught by a monster, a self-declared one who doesn't concede his bad behaviors. Trust in Vanessa was not there for herself, but it's so natural to appreciate her solid heart, her helplessness, her receptiveness, her throb, her longing for retaliation in any event when she continued letting herself know there was nothing to battle for. Vanessa is piecing herself back together, and her story unfolds in gruesome but hopeful ways.

Alongside the pointless length of the story, it's difficult to trust the other characters to give us the reality we are seeking. Vanessa battles with the individuals around her, including her parents, her different educators, and Jenny, her ex-closest friend. In spite of the fact that they take a stab at helping her with ways she doesn't acknowledge, it's easy to get exhausted with their exchange and systems. Their methods have no effect. Vanessa's so exhausted and her mind is so caught up on Strane that she doesn't see her own incompetence, her powerlessness to become mindful that individuals are attempting to support her. She becomes rebellious and inpatient, unaware of how marked she has been.

With all that being said, I do believe this story had to be told. I remember reading Kate's interview with Goodreads on why she decided to start writing this story at a young age, and there is no denying that Kate did it for good and with good intention. These are the stories voiceless teenage girls cannot tell until the chance comes, unaware of how their chance may not come. They are being broken apart without knowing it, and sometimes, trusting themselves isn't always the best choice. With that in mind, it's no surprise to me how disappointing the ending was. We don't know if Vanessa's story is out and if she will finally be able to live off what she was put through. It's difficult imagining the circumstances, considering how everyone was standing up for each other, but as Taylor Birch said: They tried, and that's what is important.

Someday when people ask me, "Who was your first lover?" the truth will set me apart. Not some ordinary boy, but an older man: my teacher. He loved me so desperately I had to leave him behind. It was tragic, but I didn't have a choice. That's just how the world works.
Profile Image for Elle (ellexamines).
1,095 reviews17.7k followers
July 18, 2023
I just really need it to be a love story. You know? I really, really need it to be that. Because if isn’t a love story, then what is it?

This is the worst book I’ve ever read. It was painful, upsetting, and often made me so uncomfortable I wanted to put it down. I also read it in a day.

My Dark Vanessa follows narrator Vanessa as, after another woman comes out with a story of abuse by their high school English teacher, she reflects back on a relationship with him beginning when she was fifteen years old.

This book is a fantastically written and incredibly difficult character study of a specific abuse survivor. Though there were moments when the pacing stymied, I found this book genuinely impossible to put down.

Towards the latter half of the novel, Vanessa becomes an increasingly unreliable narrator of her own life. She’s desperate to romanticize what happened to her because if she cannot romanticize it, her life becomes a manipulation. It is beyond that she doesn’t want to be seen as a victim; she does not want to acknowledge herself as a victim, because to admit she was a victim would send her life collapsing around her. Vanessa invalidates another survivor of Strane’s abuse and repeatedly invalidates herself, all in the interest of avoiding facing the awful truth of what happened.

There’s a Goodreads review about My Dark Vanessa [which I originally found on Tumblr, thank you Katie for your help!] that I really feel the need to quote:
“If she was the victim that whole time what meaning did her life between 15 and 32 have? Who was she or what was their left of the real her? If it was all a mind game, a manipulation, if her reality was fabricated, then who is she truly?”
And this is the real tragedy of the novel—she cannot admit what is happening to her, what has happened to others, because to do so would be to lose her narrative of her life. She loses by denying and by admitting.

I really need to emphasize that this book is incredibly upsetting. I don’t have any interest in debating the ethics of it existing; Kate Russel wrote this partially as a reaction to her own experiences, and I think she is saying something really profound about romanticization of trauma here. (As for the Ortiz controversy I think Vox said it best; her points about the publishing industry are excellent, her implications about Russell decidedly less so.) I also do not think that everyone should read this book. But I think if this description appeals to you… it’s really, really worth the read.

TW: sexual assault and rape of a child (on page), gaslighting and emotionally/psychological abuse, and self-harm.

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Profile Image for GirlWithThePinkSkiMask.
468 reviews2,012 followers
May 11, 2023
In EP.9 "Big Ick Energy" of Novels & Nonsense we discuss books we won't allow to be slandered 🙅🏻‍♀️🫣 Click the link in bio to my other picks!

TRIGGER WARNING: SA, grooming, pedophilia, suicide

Writing: 5/5 | Plot: 5/5 | Ending: 4.5/5


Told in flashbacks and present time, Vanessa recounts her experiences as a young teenager groomed by her older teacher and how she still doesn't believe he did anything wrong to her even after numerous victims come forward.


This was extremely difficult to read. I wouldn't classify this as a mystery, thriller, suspense, etc... It was just a sad ass book. Unlike Lolita, which is sensationalist crapola, this book keeps it real.

Yes, at some times you may find yourself frustrated with Vanessa's behavior or disappointed. But this is REAL—this is how victims who were groomed for YEARS behave. Not all victims react the same, but it doesn't invalidate their experiences. The author did a wonderful job demonstrating how strong denial is. It's easier to pretend it's okay than to actually face the fall out of how NOT okay it is.

A heartbreaking exploration of navigating normal teenage insecurities that were exploited, and the long lasting impacts of a disgusting, perverted teacher. I applaud the author for not glamorizing this... uh... I'm not going to call it a relationship... and showing the diabolical nature of these perverted men who intentionally seek out certain qualities in young girls.

This book will weigh heavy on my heart for many years.


Pros: Beautifully written, well-paced, insightful.

Cons: Heartbreaking, in some parts (no spoilers) it was hard to understand Vanessa's behaviour.
Profile Image for NickReads.
461 reviews1,195 followers
Want to read
June 24, 2020
Oh I love me some controversy
Profile Image for Jaidee.
605 reviews1,199 followers
May 9, 2021
5 "brutal, honest, excruciating" stars !!!

5th Favorite Read of 2020

I do not know what will be typed here. I will move forward and do my best to censor minimally. I will not succeed.

I read this book in small morsels. I could not contain many of my emotions as I read. I ached for Vanessa and the many thousands of teenage girls and boys that fall prey to malignant narcissists and sexual abusers. Unlike Vanessa, we as adult readers know that what happened to her so many times from the age of 15 to well into her twenties should not have happened. Vanessa, felt this was love. It took many years for her to realize that she was manipulated, used and sucked dry both psychically and physically. Strane, the teacher, is self-deluded, paints himself as eternal victim and in his own mind transfers control and power to Vanessa who truly does not have it. Vanessa feels special and loved and becomes addicted to this most malignant of attachments. This ruins her capabilities with friendships with other girls and relationships with boys. All is secret. Her obsession grows and as an adult transfers to other men who are mostly unaware. Vanessa hurts other women by not supporting them, denying them. Jealousy and pain wreak havoc on her psyche.
Only she can be loved by Strane unaware that she is violated over and over and over again.

Ms. Russell writes with an insight and astuity that astounds me. She has gotten into the psyches of both perpetrator and victim and understands all their mutual ugliness and pain. This dance is replayed over and over and over again. Both suffer endlessly. Strane is pure villain though despite his partial unawareness of this and Vanessa's continued adulation and adoration. Strane is a transgressive daimon and Vanessa is tainted and her psyche becomes diseased, ugly. She lives only for Strane and has become not only enmeshed but entwined with him.

I will think about this story for a very long time.

If you know any teens, either girls or boys, and you suspect that they are being hurt by an adult;
Don't turn a blind eye. Intervene. Reach out. Intervene. Reach out. Intervene. Reach out.

These stories are painful, lives are destroyed and these abuses need to end.

I want to thank Ms. Russell for creating a story of immense struggle and authenticity. I hope you are doing well in your own journey.

A shout out to the cover designer who has created one of the most impactful and beautiful book covers that I have ever seen.
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