Rummanah Aasi
 2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Review: I have tried and failed to write a review for My Dark Vanessa since I finished it last April. This was the darkest book that I have read in a very long time and honestly, was probably not the best book to read during the pandemic, but once I started this book I could not put it down and I could not stop thinking about it. I had and continue to have a swirl of emotions when it comes to this book. I will do my best to review this without transforming into She-Hulk. 
   My Dark Vanessa is told in two very different timelines in 2000 and 2017. In 2017 Vanessa is a numbed twenty something year old who can not hold down a job and whose life is a series of one night stands and drug and alcohol infused black outs. Vanessa is forced to confront her past and relationship with her teacher, Jacob Strane, at the height of the #MeToo movement when a young woman, Taylor Birch, steps forward and accuses Strane of sexual abuse.  When a young journalist reaches out to Vanessa to corroborate Taylor's story, Vanessa's world begins to unravel. What is Vanessa's relationship with Strane and what led her to her current situation today? 
  Russell effortlessly weaves Vanessa's memories of high school together with her current timeline. We follow Vanessa as she struggles to determine whether the "love story" she has told herself is in fact something incredibly tragic and unthinkable. The reader follows Vanessa as a bright eyed 15 year old teen who was looking forward to start a new chapter in her life at Browick, a prestigious, private boarding school, but she does not fit in and becomes isolated. She is groomed and preyed upon by her 42 year old English teacher, Jacob Strane, who gives her special attention from lending out his personal copies of Plath's poetry and Nabokov's Lolita to bolder intrusions of furtive caresses in his back office. It does not take long for Vanessa to revel in her newfound power of attraction, pursuing sleepovers at Strane's house, and conducting what she feels is a secret affair right under the noses of the administration. 
  Now revisiting those scenes, Vanessa begins to question if her story is of abuse because she has pursued it, but as readers we take Vanessa's assertions of agency at face value and do not see her "relationship" with Strane as anything romantic but a real, devastating, psychological harm perpetrated against her by an abusive adult. The book highlights that we live in a culture of enablement where the young women as always seen as the seductress and the harm we allow young women to shoulder while we brush off any responsibility to abusive men.  
 Readers have pointed out that the book does not develop any of the characters around Vanessa besides Strane and I believe this is intentional. Her trauma has consumed her entire life, which is why she is so desperate to want to believe it was a love story, that she is completely unaware of anything else around her. I have conflicted feelings of how the book ends, but I think that has more to do with me as a reader who wanted more justice for Vanessa than the actual book itself. Yes, this book is very dark, disturbing, gut wrenching, and rage inducing but it highlights the complexities of the #MeToo movement and it should read. 

Rating: 4.5 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong graphic sexual content and sexual assault, gaslighting, emotional abuse, language, underage drinking and drug abuse. Recommended for mature teens and adults only.

If you like this book try: Dark Horses by Susan Mihalic
2 Responses
  1. This sounds too disturbing and dark for me, but I am glad it worked well for you. I don't often see a 4.5 on your blog!

  2. I have a feeling that this book would have been abandoned by me in 2020 if I had attempted it. I normally can do dark-ish books but not now. I too put off writing some of my reviews and just revisited one book that I finished in October and another from July. Egads. Last year was bad.

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