I’ve struggled with writing a review for this book. If you’ve read it, you’ll understand what I mean when I say it’s hard to tell if I loved or hated the book. The first thing I want to cover in the review is trigger warnings. Usually I place trigger warnings at the end of my reviews, but the content of this novel is so challenging that I want to be clear up front. Please do not read this novel or this review if you find any of the following are triggering: rape, child abuse, child pornography mention/acts, gaslighting, sexual assault, physical abuse, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, grief, eating disorders, death of a pet.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell tells the story of 15-year old Vanessa Wye, a bright high school student who becomes involved with her English teacher, 42-year old Jacob Strane. The story is told through Vanessa’s point of view during two very different times in her life. In 2000, Vanessa is starting a new year at a boarding school in rural Maine. She recently had a falling out with her best friend and is struggling to find her place. This is when she first meets and begins an intimate relationship with Strane. In 2017, amid the #metoo movement, Vanessa is struggling to come to terms with what happened between her and Strane, and how it has defined her life. Allegations about Strane abusing other girls comes forward, complicating her feels.
The power of this book cannot be overstated. It details the trauma Vanessa went through at the hands of Strane so eloquently that it will make you feel physically ill. I know it doesn’t sound like it, but given the content of the book, that is a compliment. At more than one point while reading I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t seem to find my voice. I wanted to cry, but the tears seemed to be stuck. When I finally finished reading, I spent a long time just sitting and trying to digest the journey I had just gone on with Vanessa. This book is one of the most challenging stories I’ve ever read.
All of the above being said, I think this book is incredibly important and if you can stomach the content it is absolutely worth the read. It illustrates just how well predators are able to target and manipulate their prey. There were things that Strane said to Vanessa (or tactics he used rather) that I recognized from past relationships. Unfortunately, I’m sure majority of women will recognize that language Strane uses with Vanessa. When I was in my 20s it was hard for me to identify that I was being gaslighted. I can’t imagine being subjected to that kind of manipulation in high school, let alone recognizing it as such.
Last, but certainly not least, Russell’s was able to illustrate the struggle Vanessa goes through as an adult in a way that is understandable and fills you with compassion. Vanessa’s relationship with Strane has defined her entire life. Living in a society that is asking you to change your life narrative from love and adoration to abuse and manipulation must be excruciating. In addition to dealing with the impacts to your own life, you now have the #metoo movement and others urging you to come forward for the cause. The pressure. There were times where I wanted to give Vanessa a safe space, a moment of peace, anything to help slow her racing mind.
Overall, I am giving the book five stars out of five stars. It was powerful, beautifully written, and has stayed with me long since I finished the last page. I wouldn’t necessarily say I would recommend this book to others outright. I would recommend it with a huge caveat: know the content. Understand what this book is about and read it when you’re in the right headspace to absorb the story.