It’s been a while since a book was so engrossing that I quite literally carried it with me from room to room in our present Corona-quarantine, nose to page until I finished it. And it’s been even longer since a story really knocked me back on my heels.
“My Dark Vanessa” brought out full on panic attacks.
But at least I wasn’t thinking of pandemic BS for a short while.
Kate Elizabeth Russell’s story of 2000’s 15-year-old and 2017’s 32-year-old Vanessa Wye and her years-long entanglement with her much, much older English professor is dark, extremely disturbing and as mentioned above, completely engrossing. I just could not put it down.
Russell’s exploration of the many facets of inappropriate (really beyond inappropriate, but hang with me for a second) relationships will likely touch a nerve in anyone that reads it, for any number of reasons.
At the heart of the story is Vanessa, a somewhat socially awkward sophomore at a private boarding school in Maine, just trying to figure out who she is. 42-year-old Jacob Strane (I’m picturing a paunchy Russell Crowe in the movie version) inserts himself into Vanessa’s life in such an insidious manner that it splits her in two — the emotionally needy side of herself craving love and attention from someone that shouldn’t be giving it to her, and enjoying the power she subsequently derives from that; and the rational, young girl that recognizes the horrific situation she is in and wants to shut herself off from physically and emotionally — the person that feels nothing when Strane touches her.
Strane’s pedophile actions — the grooming, the gaslighting, the physical maneuvering — are so grotesque it had my head spinning. This guy is just beyond comprehension in his horribleness. And Vanessa’s years-long determination to protect her abuser is flat-out heartbreaking. Her inability to connect with her parents and a reckoning with her mother years later is just another layer of the story, another possible explanation behind Vanessa’s emotional dysfunction.
And there’s more — as the 32-year-old Vanessa navigates new accusations against her former paramour, and a desire on the part of the new accuser for her to join the fight. But to do that, Vanessa has to come to terms with what really happened, which is increasingly difficult for her to avoid. And when she does, it was soul piercing. Not everyone is ready, or wants, to say #metoo.
Like “American Dirt,” “My Dark Vanessa” has caught some literary crap. Russell has since clarified her novel is the product not just of her own experiences as a teen but that of a lot of reading and subsequent research, including a memoir by Wendy C. Ortiz, called “Excavation.” I’m adding that to my TBR list, but honestly need some space in between the two tales.
If you are looking for something that will take your mind off the current news cycle and don’t mind something way dark, this is the read for you. Highly recommend it, but if there’s any kind of sexual abuse in your past, there are major triggers with this read. Proceed with caution.