Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is an all-consuming, explosive debut that explores the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I started reading this book. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is one of my favorite novels of all time, and hearing this book touted as the #MeToo era’s version of that classic made me understandably hesitant to begin. Lolita’s narrator Humbert Humbert is a monster whose cruelty, juxtaposed with Mr. Nabokov’s gorgeous prose, is meant to show us that love, no matter how ecstatic, cannot excuse evil. The idea of an update just sounded exploitative, not only of the classic but also of the real and current stories of women bringing their abusers to justice.

So I cringed a lot during the first few chapters of My Dark Vanessa as our narrator, Vanessa Wye, a 32-year-old woman stuck in a dead-end job, looks back on her relationship with Jacob Strane, an English teacher twenty-seven years her senior. They met when she was fifteen and his student at Browick, a prestigious boarding school she begged her parents to send her to. As Vanessa recounts how she fell in love with Strane, how she was convinced their relationship was a fate-decreed romance, it’s hard not to wince, not only at the foolishness of the adolescent girl but also at the poor choices she continues to make as an adult.

But as the book goes on, it’s also hard not to sympathize with Vanessa, as she slowly flays herself open to examine why she does what she does, including the risks she takes for him and the punishments she accepts in order to protect him. At the age of fifteen, she doesn’t know any better, caught up as she is in a psychosexual whirlwind where the red flags get dashed away before she can even realize she’s in trouble. When it dawns on her that she might not be the first student Strane has developed a sexual relationship with, she demands to know:

”What about you? Have you, with another student?”

 

“Do you think I have?” he asks.

 

I look up, caught off guard. I don’t know what I think. I know what I want to believe, what I have to believe, but I have no idea how those things align with what might’ve happened in all the years before me. He’s been a teacher for almost as long as I’ve been alive.

 

Strane watches as I grapple for words, a smile creeping across his face. Finally, he says, “The answer is no. Even if I had moments of desire, it never would’ve seemed worth the risk. Not until you [came] along.”

 

I try to hide how happy this makes me feel by rolling my eyes, but his words break my chest wide open and leave me helpless. There’s nothing stopping him from reaching in and grabbing whatever he wants. I’m special. I’m special. I’m special.

Strane manipulates her so well that even seventeen years later, Vanessa cannot look at her relationship with him as anything but a mutual seduction, no matter what she logically knows. When another student of his accuses him of sexual abuse and reaches out to Vanessa to back up her story, Vanessa must confront what it means to be culpable and what it means to be complicit, even as a journalist hounds her for a truth that she’d long promised Strane she would never tell.

Complex and haunted, Vanessa is a modern-day Dolores Haze in a tale told from the anguished, three-dimensional perspective of the young girl who made the mistake of believing that the sexual interest of an older man meant anything but harm. Kate Elizabeth Russell has written a sensitive, heart-breaking companion to the Nabokov, retelling the relationship through the lens of the character whose voice matters the most, the young girl deemed a nymphet, a Lolita. I’m glad Ms. Russell didn’t merely choose to rewrite the original as, given its ending, that would likely have precluded her ability to then advocate for the right of victims to choose how they deal with their trauma. Vanessa doesn’t want to go public, despite the pressure to stand in solidarity with the other women Strane abused. Her reticence runs so deeply that she’s only just admitted the story to her therapist, whom she turns to for advice on talking to the journalist:

[“]I just want to know if you think I should.”

 

“I think it would cause you severe stress,” Ruby says. “I’d worry the symptoms you described would become even more intense to the point where it would be difficult for you to function.”

 

“But I’m talking on a moral level. Because isn’t it supposed to be worth all the stress? That’s what people keep saying, that you need to speak out no matter the cost.”

 

“No,” she says firmly. “That’s wrong. It’s a dangerous amount of pressure to put on someone dealing with trauma.”

 

“Then why do they keep saying it? Because it’s not just this journalist. It’s every woman who comes forward. But if someone doesn’t want to come forward and tell the world every bad thing that’s happened to her, then she’s what? Weak? Selfish?”

Ms. Russell tackles the hard questions in this searing depiction of the interior life of a woman who, while an adolescent, was groomed to satisfy the desires of an abuser, and whose life and outlook have been warped ever since. Ms. Russell is unafraid to delve into the hideous heart of human desire, and to frankly show how society demands too much of women and girls and too little of the men who prey on them. Her debut novel, twenty years in the making, is an astonishing feat of both empathy and literary skill. While not as technically dazzling as the book that inspired it, My Dark Vanessa is a thematic companion to Lolita that deserves to be deemed equally essential reading.

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