Book Review: My Dark Vanessa

In the year 2000, 15-year-old Vanessa Wye has an affair with her 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane, at a prestigious boarding school in Maine. In 2017, Strane is accused of sexual abuse by another student, who reaches out to Vanessa in hopes of uncovering the scale of Strane’s abuse. But Vanessa doesn’t believe she was ever abused – she views her relationship with Strane as a love story, and still keeps in contact with him seventeen years after their affair. As abuse allegations surface on social media and make news headlines, Vanessa is forced to revisit her teenage years and reconsider the relationship from a new perspective.

The book: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

My Dark Vanessa is deeply disturbing and uncomfortable, yet so captivating. The chapters alternate between Vanessa’s high school and college years in the early 2000’s, and her adult life in 2017 when the abuse allegations against Strane come out. The alternating timelines work really well here, because they show not only how Strane manipulated Vanessa as a high-schooler, but also how that manipulation has shaped Vanessa’s entire self-concept and still affects her seventeen years later.

The character development in this novel was incredibly nuanced: Vanessa is complicated, frustrating, heartbreaking and painfully believable. Through Vanessa’s character, author Kate Elizabeth Russell effectively shows the complex effects of surviving covert abuse, and how particularly insidious abusers can manipulate their victims into believing they are willing participants in an abusive relationship. Russell also shows glimpses of how abuse survivors unwittingly perpetuate the cycle of abuse: because Vanessa doesn’t believe herself to be a victim of abuse, she does not empathize with other women who identify as victims, and even blames other women for letting themselves get involved with predators. In real life, I would find somebody like Vanessa incredibly frustrating, but getting to know her character in this novel, I felt so much heartbreak and tenderness for this woman who was groomed to perceive the world in a truly flawed way.

Something else that stood out to me in My Dark Vanessa was the dynamic between Vanessa and her parents. While I certainly wouldn’t consider Vanessa’s parents to be abusive, they do neglect Vanessa and fail to support her emotionally, which makes her melancholy and lonely even before Strane begins his affair with her. It is no coincidence that Strane singles out the loneliest student, one who might be used to having her needs neglected. Abusers specifically target people that they think will make easy victims, and Russell does a great job illustrating this.

I adored My Dark Vanessa, and would recommend it with the caveat that the scenes between Strane and Vanessa can be pretty difficult to stomach. This novel was such an enthralling read, and I loved the way it portrayed the healing process in a realistically complex yet compassionate way.

Author: Hannah Celeste

Hi! I'm Hannah, a book-blogger from the Northeastern United States. I enjoy reading many genres, cooking and baking, doing yoga, and spending time with my two cats.

23 thoughts on “Book Review: My Dark Vanessa”

    1. Thank you! Yeah, it’s a wildly different perspective, which is probably why it was so captivating. I’m glad you’re having a good experience with this one too – I’ll look forward to your thoughts on it!! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Wow. This puts me in mind of “The Tale” which is a movie written & directed by Jennifer Fox (with a tremendous cast including Laura Dern) — about Fox’s years of abuse at the hands of her elite riding instructor and coach. Like the MC in this book, it took Fox years to realize what she’d experienced was in fact assault, and the denial and complicity of her parents is truly disturbing — but very human.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Tale sounds fascinating! I hadn’t heard of it, but it sounds like a great follow-up to My Dark Vanessa (or vice versa) – I’ll have to check it out. Thank you for bringing it to my attention!

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  2. Great review. Every time I hear about this one it sounds even more nuanced and impressive! I’m hoping to get to this one very soon. Glad to see you loved it!

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  3. I’ve read about and listened to podcasts featuring pimps, and they all say the same thing: they find the isolated person. It’s terrifying to me what isolation, even among a group of people, like school or home, can be so dangerous. I immediately think of herd animals and how predators will pick off any “stragglers.” I can see how Vanessa would be frustrating; hearing teens talk about decisions they made and how they knowingly made them can be convincing, but those same age groups will make a terrible split-second decision, too. And if Vanessa is 17 and at 18 she’d be an adult, there are arguments she could make about how time doesn’t really matter, it’s just a law.

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    1. Oh that is horrifying. Even though we already know it to be true, it must be so unsettling to hear someone admit to that type of predatory behavior 😨😨 And YES teenagers (and even college students) make and are influenced to make terrible decisions, but take years to realize how risky those choices were! Thinking of binge-drinking culture and hook-up culture especially.

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      1. When I started my MFA program at the University of Notre Dame, the student paper included an article by a young woman who was confused as to why she couldn’t make friends. She’d be sleeping with everyone she wanted to befriend, and I had to wonder what sort of influence or weird thinking got her there. The campus ate her alive in the letters to the editor in the following paper.

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  4. Sorry I’m late to this one, but great review! Like you I was also enthralled by this novel despite its heavy subject matter. It was so difficult to read because I felt so sad for Vanessa, how lonely she was and how much she just wanted someone to understand her. It was disturbing to me that she doesn’t really have a support system and that Strane remains her only human connection aside from her therapist and mom! Definitely worth the hype though.

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    1. Hah no worries about a late reply!! YES I completely agree with you about Vanessa’s lack of support system – it is so disgusting how abusers specifically hone in on the people with the smallest support system/the easiest people to take advantage of.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This review makes me really look forward to this book. I’ve been reading a lot of reviews for My Dark Vanessa and everyone has the same thing to say – that I must read it. Great review as always.

    Liked by 1 person

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