Book Review: Hunger

Roxane Gay’s Hunger is a collection of the author’s complex thoughts about her body. In the memoir, Gay explores how a traumatic childhood event led to her weight gain, and examines how having an “unruly body” (as she calls it) has affected her self-image, relationships, and life experiences.

The book: Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

One of my favorite things about Hunger was Gay’s honesty and vulnerability. Throughout the memoir, Gay unapologetically portrays herself in all of her complexity, including her moments of pettiness and insecurity. Gay takes ownership of her body and her experiences, but she balances that self-possession with honesty about the ways in which she still struggles to accept herself. Listening to Hunger as an audiobook – which is narrated by Gay herself – especially accentuates her vulnerability.

In addition to being deeply moved by Hunger, I also learned a lot from it. Early in the memoir, Gay mentions that the upper-end of the “normal” BMI range was lowered in 1998. This infuriated me, because I have heard so many fear-mongering claims that the obesity “epidemic” in the United States has dramatically increased in the past 30ish years. None of those claims were accompanied by an acknowledgement that this “increase” is likely an artifact of the way we classify overweightness.

Hunger also opened my eyes to more obvious problems with the way fatness is treated in the United States; problems that should have been obvious to me, but that I had never considered before reading this book. An example of such a problem is the fact that overweight people experience eating disorders too. This hadn’t occurred to me before, because (as Gay points out) health class textbooks and the media generally don’t talk about eating disorders as something that overweight people struggle with. Another example is TV shows – like The Biggest Loser – which portray fatness as a problem to be combatted by any means necessary. Taken together, these examples paint a disturbing picture of how American society actively encourages unhealthy weight loss strategies. This hadn’t explicitly occurred to me before, but as Gay pointed out these problems, they immediately rang true.

Without summarizing the entire memoir, here are a few more of Gay’s critiques that really resonated with and moved me. First, I loved Gay’s idea that women in particular are pressured to be thin because thin women literally take up less space, and American society certainly isn’t ready for women to take up as much space as men. I also appreciated Gay’s point that no matter how powerful a woman becomes, she will never be exempt from critiques of her body (she cites Oprah as an example of this). Finally, I loved Gay’s idea that it is possible to know logically that your body doesn’t define your worth, yet simultaneously feel insecure about your body in a society that harshly judges appearances (especially women’s appearances).

My one critique of Hunger is that some of the chapters ended a bit abruptly, giving some of the stories an “unfinished” quality. Still, the writing was incredibly moving, and the chapters came together to create a beautiful and powerful memoir. I loved Hunger and would highly recommend it.

Trigger warnings: eating disorders, r*pe. Even if these aren’t normally triggers for you, Gay’s accounts of her experiences are so deeply personal that they might shake you up a bit.

Book Review: Death in Her Hands

Death in Her Hands is about an elderly widow named Vesta, whose mundane life is disrupted by a note that she finds while walking her dog in the woods. The note says “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” Vesta’s curiosity about this note slowly begins to consume her, and she starts spending the majority of her time trying to solve the murder mystery with what limited information she has.

The book: Death in Her Hands by Otessa Moshfegh
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

If you’re looking for a fast-paced mystery novel, you won’t find it in Death in Her Hands. Although the novel has some elements of mystery, the real focus of this story is the narrator’s mental and emotional state. Vesta is elderly and lonely, and without much factual information about the mysterious note she found in the woods, she spends most of her time pondering hypothetical situations that could have led to Magda’s death. As she becomes increasingly obsessed with Magda’s death, Vesta’s grip on reality – and therefore the events of the novel as described by Vesta – becomes hazy.

Conceptually, I think what Moshfegh did with Death in Her Hands was clever and interesting. Humans are extremely good at telling stories, and we are especially prone to telling ourselves stories to make sense of situations that don’t have an obvious explanation. When we do this without enough factual information, however, we can get lost in spiraling thoughts that are no longer based on reality. I find the stories that people tell themselves fascinating, and I can appreciate the ideas behind Moshfegh’s detailed exploration of an elderly widow getting lost in her own mind.

While I appreciate what Moshfegh was trying to explore in Death in Her Hands, I didn’t actually enjoy reading it. This 270-page novel takes place over the course of a couple days, and most of that time is spent inside Vesta’s unreliable mind. The combination of slow pacing and an unreliable narrator who may or may not be losing her mind just didn’t work for me – especially since I had expected the book to be more of a mystery than it turned out to be. I kept waiting for the mystery to pick up, but it never really did.

Although Death in Her Hands didn’t work for me, I still recommend checking it out if you were previously interested, or if it sounds interesting to you based on this review. Many of my issues with the book are the result of my own expectations, so if you go into this book knowing that it is not a typical mystery novel, you will likely have a better time with it.

Trigger warnings: fatphobic narrator and an animal abuse scene that I wish I could unread.

Book Review: The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell

Black lives matter, Black voices matter, and Black stories matter! The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell is, as you may have inferred from the title, an essay collection and memoir from stand-up comedian W. Kamau Bell. If you haven’t seen his work, I highly recommend his Netflix comedy special “Private School Negro” or his CNN show “United Shades of America.” In his memoir, Bell dissects the various components of his identity – fatherhood, Blackness, activism, nerdiness, and more – and how they shape who he is as a person.

The book: The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Before I get into the content of the book, I want to mention that I read this as an audiobook, which probably influenced my opinion in some ways. Bell has a deep, clear voice which is pleasant to listen to and well-suited for audiobooks. Beyond enjoying the sound of Bell’s voice, I enjoyed the experience of hearing his stories in his own voice. From now on, I will try to listen to memoirs and autobiographies exclusively as audiobooks.

I also enjoyed the book itself. W. Kamau Bell’s comedy is political with an emphasis on intersectional racism, and so is his memoir. The book isn’t exclusively about racism or politics, but as a Black man in America (or more specifically, a 6’4″ black man married to a white woman, with two interracial children), Bell’s perspectives are influenced by the racism that he has witnessed and experienced. Even the chapters about “apolitical” things – such as Bell’s love of superheroes, Denzel Washington, and the movie Creed – eventually touch upon race, subtly demonstrating the ways in which racism seeps into virtually every facet of American culture.

In addition to offering excellent commentary on intersectionality, Bell describes his life experiences with brilliant transparency and authenticity. He proudly talks about his nerdiness, his love for his family, and his personal and professional growth. He is also very open about how his shortcomings and failures shaped him, discussing failures in the early stages of his stand-up career, his unconscious sexist biases that he unlearned with the help of a friend, and even a rough patch in his marriage where he and his wife lived apart. Of course, celebrities aren’t required to present themselves in all of their complexity to write an enjoyable memoir, but I found Bell’s honesty refreshing.

My biggest critique of The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell is that it could have been considerably shorter. The book is repetitive in places, and his elaborate build-ups to important moments didn’t always work for me. One story in particular focuses on an incident at a gas station that took place over the span of a few minutes, but Bell spends over twenty minutes telling the story! I also took issue with a comment Bell made that “some kids are just jerks. After all, where else do adult jerks come from?” The comment was probably a joke, but it was one of his jokes that really didn’t land for me, especially because it contradicts Bell’s own assertion that jokes at the expense of innocent people aren’t that funny.

Overall, though, I had a great time with The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell. This deeply personal essay collection strikes a great balance between funny, sincere, and serious. I also learned a lot from Bell’s stories, with one of my biggest takeaways being that racism subtly invades just about every facet of American society (even things that white Americans think of as “apolitical”). I would recommend this book – especially as an audiobook so you can hear Bell’s stories in his own voice!

Book Review: So We Can Glow

This post is a couple weeks late, but I recently read Leesa Cross-Smith’s short story collection So We Can Glow. Actually, as I learned from Melanie at Grab the Lapels, this is a flash-fiction collection: most of the stories are just a few pages long. The stories in this collection feature women in moments of obsession, longing, and fantasy.

The book: So We Can Glow: Stories by Leesa Cross-Smith
Genre: Contemporary, short-stories
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

While the stories all center around similar themes, they are different enough from each other to make for a varied and interesting reading experience. So We Can Glow is a book about obsession, but the stories are also about loneliness, longing, grief, fear, fearlessness, and friendship. The stories also vary in tone – some are whimsical, some are heavy, and some are endearingly weird. That variety in theme and tone really worked for me: it made most of the stories distinct enough from each other to be memorable, and it also allowed me to experience a full range of emotions as I read through the collection.

And even though the stories in this collection are short, Leesa Cross-Smith made them unbelievably captivating in just a few pages. It normally takes me a while to “get into” any new story I’m reading, but with So We Can Glow I instantly felt connected to the characters and their worlds. The writing is lyrical, immersive, nostalgic and also super readable.

I also appreciated how the characters’ emotions are given validity no matter what. Even when the characters behave in challenging ways, Cross-Smith never judges her characters or goes into lengthy explanations to justify their behavior. Instead, she unapologetically shows her characters as they are in the brief moments of their lives that the stories capture. In this way, the collection kind of reminded me of Amber Sparks’ And I Do Not Forgive You or Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You, but Cross-Smith’s stories were much more compelling and accessible to me.

Finally, I want to mention that some of the later stories in the collection follow up on earlier stories. Continuity in a short story collection isn’t a necessity for me, but in this case I really appreciated the opportunity to follow up on old characters and to see their stories from new perspectives.

My overall impression was that the stories in this collection are beautifully written, emotionally evocative, endearing, and unapologetically authentic. I loved and highly recommend So We Can Glow, and can’t wait to read more of Cross-Smith’s work.

Book Review: The Vanishing Half

Black lives matter, Black voices matter, and Black stories matter! The Vanishing Half is a multigenerational story about a pair of light-skinned Black twins, Desiree and Stella, who end up leading drastically different adult lives. Desiree marries a darker man in Washington D.C., but soon returns to her hometown in Louisiana to raise her daughter, Jude, who is also dark-skinned. Stella, on the other hand, passes as white, marries a white man, and raises a white child. The Vanishing Half shows how Desiree and Stella’s choices affect their own lives and the lives of their children.

The book: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Told over the course of four decades, The Vanishing Half follows four main characters: twins Desiree and Stella, and their daughters Jude and Kennedy. I normally prefer one highly nuanced main character to multiple potentially-underdeveloped characters, but I thought this story offered a good balance between the number and depth of characters. I found Stella’s character to be the most nuanced, which makes sense given that she made the enormous decision to live the rest of her life as a white woman – there’s a lot to unpack there.

Actually, there’s a lot to unpack throughout the entire novel, as Brit Bennett critiques institutionalized racism, internalized racism within the Black community, classism, materialism, discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, and intergenerational trauma. What struck me most about Bennett’s commentary was how relevant it still is today. Certain scenes that were set in the 1970’s and 80’s – which included white people focusing on “black-on-black” crime instead of larger systemic issues, white people centering their own feelings of guilt in their relationships with Black acquaintances, and rich white families using generous donations to get their children into elite colleges – could have been written about the year 2020. I appreciate that Bennett included examples of racism that still occur now, because they emphasize how deeply prevalent racism is in the United States.

The Vanishing Half is also full of subtle commentary in the form of sentences that seem straightforward, but actually reveal a lot about the novel’s characters. One example of this that sticks with me is when Stella’s daughter, Kennedy, compares a play that she’s starring in to Hamlet. The third-person narrator follows up on this, saying that “the play was nothing like Hamlet but she said it with such conviction that you almost believed her.” Not only does this sentence convey a lot about Kennedy’s self-assuredness, but in the context of the scene, it also reminds the reader who is afforded the privilege to be confidently wrong.

My biggest critique of The Vanishing Half is that the plot is largely driven by unrealistic coincidences (yes, coincidences, plural). But Bennett acknowledges the implausibility of key events, with sentences like: “Statistically speaking, the likelihood of encountering [redacted for spoilers] was improbable but not impossible.” Bennett follows-up that acknowledgment by moving into a passage about one of the characters becoming a statistics teacher. It’s like she is saying “yes, this coincidence is pretty implausible. Now we’re going to move on.”

NOTE: because I am cisgendered, please take my opinions in the following paragraph with a massive grain of salt, and feel free to let me know if you disagree.

One thing that I’m unsure about is the portrayal of Reese, a trans man. For the most part, I thought that Reese was characterized compassionately: he is a loving and supportive partner, he has as much depth as any other supporting character in the novel, and he is never needlessly exploited for being trans. But there is a moment where Jude claims that she understands Reese’s desire to change his outward identity, because she knows about Stella, who has chosen to pass as white. Being so tired of racial discrimination that a Black woman chooses to live the rest of their life as white is heartbreaking and complicated…but I don’t think that it’s directly comparable to the struggle of not having your personal sense of gender match your assigned gender/birth sex, and I wish that this had been addressed. Again, I am a cisgendered person, so I may be way off the mark here. If you think that I missed anything important about Reese’s characterization – positive or negative – please feel free to let me know.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend The Vanishing Half, especially if you like thought-provoking novels that are rich in social commentary. While this book didn’t quite live up to the hype for me, there was still a lot that I liked about it.

Notes:

  • So far I haven’t found any reviews of The Vanishing Half by trans book-bloggers. If you are a trans blogger who has read this novel and would like to share your review with me, I would love to read it!
  • If you are interested in reading and supporting more works by Black authors, please feel free to check out the following resources: my ever-growing Black lit challenge shelf on Goodreads, Fatma’s list of 2020 book releases by Black authors, this post from Emily which includes a TBR list of books by Black authors, and this extensive radical reading list.
  • MOST IMPORTANTLY! Racism is not just an ugly part of the United States’ history – it is still deeply prevalent today. Please check out this list of anti-racist resources, which includes links to various funds supporting black lives, as well as educational resources.

Book Review: Bunny

Bunny is a genre-bending novel about an MFA student, Samantha, who feels very much like an outsider to the rest of her fiction-writing cohort. The other girls in the cohort are cliquey, rich, and cutesy, and they refer to each other as “Bunny” – all of which repulses Samantha. But when the Bunnies invite Samantha to their “Smut Salon,” Samantha finds herself inexplicably drawn to their precious world. Behind the Bunnies’ charm, however, there is a sinister darkness; and as Samantha becomes increasingly involved with the Bunnies, she begins to lose herself.

The book: Bunny by Mona Awad
Genre: Contemporary fiction/satire/horror
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The best description of Bunny that I can give is Heathers meets Alice in Wonderland meets Frankenstein meets Stephen King. It’s a very disorienting story that takes several unexpected twists and turns, with some revelations that completely reframe the entire narrative. Because the novel is intentionally disorienting, a lot of things are up to interpretation – I finished Bunny a few days ago and am still bouncing between different potential interpretations of certain scenes. This type of novel won’t be for everyone, but I personally enjoyed it.

A major reason why Bunny worked so much for me is because the writing is hilariously self-aware. My favorite example of this is a scene where one of the Bunnies criticizes her fellow classmate’s story for being too vague, exclaiming: Um, what the fuck is this please? This makes no sense. This is coy and this is willfully obscure and no one but [the author] will ever get this…TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED. TELL ME WHAT THE FUCK THIS MEANS.” This could be said of Bunny itself, and I love that Awad acknowledged that. Awad also gently makes fun of the self-importance of graduate students, the weird dynamics of female friend groups, and the way that millennials give ridiculously exaggerated compliments. I felt so seen and so hilariously called out.

I also enjoyed Bunny‘s genre-bending nature. Awad takes on horror, satire, humor, psychological explorations, and more – and she does it all with skill and self-awareness. There are moments where the prose borders on pretentious, but I thought the hints of pretentiousness were perfect for a story narrated by a grad student in a prestigious MFA program.

Bunny was infinitely weirder than I had expected, but I really enjoyed it. If you’re okay with “WTF-just-happened” stories, I highly recommend this book. And I recommend going in with as few expectations as possible, to really let the story take you on its wild ride.

Book Review: Freshwater

Black lives matter. Black voices matter. Black stories matter. Freshwater is the first book that I read for my black lit challenge, which is a lifelong commitment to listen to and amplify black voices in literature. Freshwater tells the story of a volatile Nigerian woman, Ada, who is trying to make sense of her multiple personalities. After a traumatic experience in college, two of Ada’s personalities materialize and become more dominant, leading Ada to get lost in her mind and make increasingly risky decisions.

The book: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

It’s hard for me to review Freshwater because it was such a unique reading experience that nothing I say could possibly do it justice. The first part of the novel is told from the perspective of Nigerian ogbanje, or the spirits in Ada’s mind that cause her pain and grief. After Ada experiences a major trauma in college, two of these spirits materialize in Ada’s mind, and become distinct personalities that she calls Asughara and Saint Vincent. The remainder of the novel is mostly told from the perspective of Asughara. I absolutely loved this narrative style, because it resulted in a very nuanced, layered story. Every event that Ada experienced could be viewed from the perspective of Igbo folklore in which spirits manipulate the physical world, and through the lens of Western psychology in which one’s sense of self can fracture in response to trauma.

In addition to being wonderfully nuanced, Freshwater is beautifully written. Emezi’s prose is powerful, lyrical, and engrossing. It is also quite introspective, which results in Ada being portrayed in an immensely compassionate light. Sometimes it’s hard to empathize with characters who behave in startling and self-destructive ways, but Ada’s psyche is explored so deeply that it’s impossible to feel anything but compassion for her – all of her behavior makes sense in light of her complex psychological underpinnings.

This is a short review, but I don’t have much more to say about Freshwater. The combination of Igbo folklore with psychological introspection was so beautiful and fresh, resulting in one of the most striking and captivating novels I’ve ever read. I highly recommend this book, and can’t wait to read more of Emezi’s works.

Book Review: Hamnet

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is a historical fiction novel centered around the life of William Shakespeare’s family. Told largely from the perspective of William’s wife, Agnes, the novel covers Agnes and William’s romance, the birth of their three children, their long-distance relationship, and the grief of the Shakespeare family after the death of their son Hamnet.

The book: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Hamnet was an enjoyable read for me, but I definitely went into the novel with the wrong expectations. For some reason, I was under the impression that the book focused entirely on the death of William and Agnes’ son Hamnet, and how their grief inspired William Shakespeare to write the play Hamlet. In actuality, Hamnet is a book in two parts. The first part alternates between chapters telling William and Agnes’ love story, and chapters focusing on the days leading up to Hamnet’s death. The second part of the book, which is written as one long chapter, shows the family in their grief after Hamnet has passed. This format would have worked so much better for me if I hadn’t expected the entire novel to focus on the grieving of Hamnet’s death, but because I did have that expectation, I found myself getting pretty impatient with the first part of the book.

Although Hamnet wasn’t what I expected, I still found it compelling. Maggie O’Farrell does an excellent job of making the reader feel connected to 16th-century England by drawing upon relatable emotions and experiences, like the stigma and shame of being a social outcast, and the overwhelming burden of grief. And with the novel’s release in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the passages depicting societal anxiety surrounding the Plague were eerily familiar. But at the same time, O’Farrell juxtaposes those relatable elements against historical details that unquestionably place the novel in the 16th century. Children die frequently, mothers die frequently, cruel parenting methods are common, and medical knowledge is so limited. That balance between timeless human experiences and very specific historical details was the most striking part of the novel for me.

I also appreciated how much the novel focuses on Agnes, as opposed to her very famous husband. William Shakespeare’s works are incredible, and he is famous for good reason – but part of what allowed him to become so successful was the invisible labor of Agnes. By centering so much of the novel around Agnes and the work she put into running her household and taking care of her family, O’Farrell demonstrates that Shakespeare probably couldn’t have become so successful without major sacrifices and support from Agnes.

Hamnet is also beautifully written, and Maggie O’Farrell is the master of showing, not telling. In this scene, for example, where young William Shakespeare defends himself against his abusive father, O’Farrell writes: “The sight of the mark seemed to enrage the father further because he lifted his arm again, for a second blow, but the son reached up. He seized his father’s arm. He pushed, with all his might, against him and found, to his surprise, that his father’s body yielded under his. He could push this man, this leviathan, this monster of his childhood, back against the wall with very little effort. He did so.” O’Farrell could have just said that William hit his father back, but instead she turns a small action into an immersive scene. With that being said, there were definitely some instances where the flowery language was too much for me, and where I thought a succinct description would have been just fine.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend Hamnet. My expectations of the novel did affect my enjoyment of it, though, so I would recommend that other readers not go into this novel expecting it to focus entirely around one specific event.

Book Review: The Bridge of Little Jeremy

12-year-old Jeremy is an aspiring artist in Paris with a genetic heart condition. Finances have always been tight for Jeremy and his mother, but when the family is unexpectedly hit with a hefty inheritance tax, Jeremy’s mother ends up in serious debt. So Jeremy does what any teenage boy in his situation would: he uses his artistic talent to earn money and save his mother from her debts.

The book: The Bridge of Little Jeremy by Indrajit Garai
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: DNF

Even though I didn’t finish this novel, I will provide my honest opinion of the first ~33% of it. My favorite thing about The Bridge of Little Jeremy was the immersive setting of Paris. Jeremy and his dog Leon spend a lot of time adventuring around Paris, and these passages are written in such a way that I felt like I was wandering alongside them. At times I felt that the descriptions of Paris were a bit superfluous – some detail could have been omitted and the passages still would have been quite immersive – but at other times these scenes took on an absorbing and surreal quality, which might not have been achieved without such vivid detail.

I also liked the main character, Jeremy. He is kind and compassionate toward people and animals alike, he is confident and charismatic, and he doesn’t let his financial and medical struggles dampen his amazement for life. The fact that Jeremy retains his childlike curiosity in spite of his struggles made him a very realistic child narrator for me (and in this way he reminded me of Jai from Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line).

My main issue with this novel was that I just couldn’t get into the writing. There was a lot of focus on the mundane details of Jeremy’s day-to-day life, which worked well at times, but fell flat at others. Based on the first ~33% of this book, I think it could have been considerably shorter. Interestingly, I noticed on Goodreads that the paperback format of this book (which is the format that I read) has a lower rating than either of the Kindle editions – perhaps the intricately detailed writing lends itself better to scrolling on a Kindle? If I ever get an eBook reader, I will try The Bridge of Little Jeremy again and see if the different format improves my experience.

While I enjoyed the immersive setting and compassionate main character, I couldn’t get into The Bridge of Little Jeremy and ultimately decided to stop reading about one-third of the way through. Although this book didn’t work for me, there are plenty of positive reviews of it on Goodreads, so do still check it out if you’re interested! And maybe go for an eBook edition, since that format has higher reviews than the paperback format.

Thank you to Estelle Leboucher for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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.