William Morrow, 384 pages, $27.99
Lolita for the #MeToo era. That’s how My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell, has been described.
It’s a clever sound bite, but when you peel back the veneer from what at first appears to be a titillating account of forbidden romance between Vanessa Wye, a whip-smart 15-year-old boarding school student, and Jacob Strane, her Harvard-educated English lit teacher and paramour, you’ll soon find yourself caught in that shadowy realm between good and evil, right and wrong, pedophile and hapless fool who falls prey to a younger woman.
And that’s exactly where Russell wants you to dwell.
After all, our society has a hard time viewing teenage girls as children, or even human beings, for that matter. We use them to sell us anti-aging cream and shapewear, we put them on pedestals only to knock them down, casting them in the roles of virgin or whore. The most dangerous creature of all is the nymphet, the femme fatale, the siren who will lead a good man to ruin, a common archetype threaded throughout art, music, and literature.
Strane grooms Vanessa not with force or extravagant gifts but with something much more powerful — words. Through Plath, Frost, Poe, Nabokov’s Lolita, and Pale Fire (the reference for the title), he twists Vanessa’s loneliness and compliance into something far more sinister, a carefully curated narrative of dark love, sexual power, and insatiability that she will drag with her, well into adulthood, like a phantom limb.
It’s only when accusations against Strane resurface years later during the #MeToo era that Vanessa is forced to confront the true nature of her relationship. Strane’s latest accuser is claiming abuse simply because he placed his hand on her knee, so what does that say about what he did to Vanessa?
Pearl-clutchers, take note: When it comes to sexuality and complex power dynamics, Russell pulls no punches. What you get is a raw, unflinching look at the ways we hold young girls responsible for the criminal actions of grown men and, even worse, how victims come to blame themselves.
Russell dedicates her book to “the real-life Dolores Hazes and Vanessa Wyes whose stories have not yet been heard, believed or understood.” This is the only clue Russell gives of her personal views in the book’s pages, but after alarm bells were raised by the author of a 2014 memoir over supposed similarities in their stories, Russell has had to expand on her perspective, revealing that the story is, in fact, based on her own experiences. It makes her unbiased approach all the more striking and poignant.
Occasionally, she presents Vanessa in such a harsh light, some readers may be frustrated by our heroine, and that’s OK. Prepare to settle in and be ill at ease.
With Fiona Apple lyrics floating from the pages — a heady soundtrack for this discomforting tale — your beliefs will be challenged, you will feel helpless, angry, and possibly a little depraved, but the book will make you feel. A rarity these days.
You’ll want to make sure to carve out enough time before starting, because My Dark Vanessa is compulsive. I burned through the first half of the book in such a fever that I lost sleep, I missed meals. The climax, which seems inevitable, falls smack dab in the middle of the book, leaving the rest of the story to seep out, like stagnant air being let out of a balloon, but I think that’s exactly the point.
Just as I was trying to recapture my initial breathless pace, Vanessa was doing the same — desperately trying to return to the past, to piece together the facade she created to justify her love affair with Strane.
Witnessing Vanessa’s downward spiral, watching her strip away every layer of guilt and blame, exposing chronic wounds to bitter conditions, would be unbearable in less capable hands, but Russell manages to weave beautiful prose with gut-wrenching truth so deftly that even the most squeamish readers will not be able to stop themselves from wading into
If you’re looking for hard-and-fast answers, grand epiphanies, satisfying retribution, a celebration of victimhood, or an after-school special-esque lesson, you will be sorely disappointed.
The genius of this book is what’s left unsaid, the deceptively simple nuance with which this difficult material is handled.
“Careful” is a word that comes up again and again in this novel. Just as Vanessa always described the careful way Strane maneuvered her, I feel as if Russell took just as much care in delivering this powder keg of a tale to her readers.
To call this book a “conversation piece” or “an important book” feels belittling, something reserved for female authors writing about the female experience. But this book is so much more than that. It’s a lightning rod. A brilliantly crafted novel, one that will stand against any of the celebrated tomes glorifying the over-sexualization of girls.
Not young women. Girls. Just like Vanessa.