Book Review: My Dark Vanessa

Trigger Warnings: Rape, Abuse, Suicide


I am 100% that reader who picks up books on a whim because my tastes vary wildly. One day, I’ll be reading dystopian YA, and the next, I’ll engross myself in what exactly happened at Standing Rock and why we should care.

So it’s no surprise that I immediately added My Dark Vanessa to my TBR after watching a booktube review from Lady Jane Books. Admittedly, the biggest draw for me is that the book was controversial and is often compared to a modern-day Lolita; however, aside from the story involving an older man and younger woman (well, girl), I didn’t get Nabokov vibes. To me, it was more of a thread than a theme, and maybe you’ll see why after my review.

My Dark Vanessa is about a teenaged girl (Vanessa Wye) who was groomed by her 40-something private school teacher (Jacob Strane). When the story begins, she’s managed to avoid dealing with what happened thanks to a plethora of self-destructive and dissociative behaviors, but her fragile mental fortress falls apart when another former student of Strane’s makes headlines, publicly accusing him of sexual misconduct.

Author Kate Elizabeth Russell approaches the story in such a way that you can completely relate to our protagonist having a school-girl crush while also feeling icky for doing so. On one hand, I think we all had a teacher who was maybe a little more important to us than others for whatever reason, usually because they weren’t bad-looking. On the other hand, the thought of that teacher making a move on me when I’d barely hit puberty is a bit cringe.

But in her eyes, their relationship is mostly loving; Strane was so fascinated by her mind, writing, and intellect that he couldn’t resist being close to her, putting them both at risk by blowing right past the boundaries of a typical student/teacher relationship. To a young girl, such compliments are so flattering that it goes beyond an improper dalliance. And when that girl becomes an adult, she doesn’t want to believe it was only love sprung from naïveté, so she spends entire days trying to convince herself over and over that his gaze was love, not leering.

Vanessa’s innocence is even more apparent when she’s disgusted by the act of sex at 14 – despite wanting it – which haunts her well into her 30s, when she refuses to think of herself as a victim because she “chose” the relationship. This is an ongoing thought process that will do your head in if, like me, you think she was very obviously taken advantage of — but I don’t necessarily think that frustration is a bad thing because I also understand her struggle. We’re taught to believe rape has to be this violent, physically abusive thing, but it’s not only that. Rape in My Dark Vanessa is entirely about Strane making his victim believe she has the control, planting thoughts in her head to make her act on what she thinks she wants.

Adding to my frustration is the all-to-real depiction of an institution – in this case, a private school – sweeping Vanessa’s case under the rug, despite people in her life trying to do the right thing. I’ve heard about this happening far too often, specifically at my college where girls were practically forced to leave campus after nothing was done about an alleged rape because nothing had been done. The only time I saw anyone step in was when the alleged rape happened in a Greek organization and National had to shut it down. In Vanessa’s case, she tried to protect Strane by “admitting” she made up the whole story, then was forced to stand in front of her fellow students and say she’s a liar. Unreal while also being very real.

I consider myself a person who reads a decent amount, but it’s been a long time since I’ve devoured a book the way I blew through My Dark Vanessa. The writing is fluid, on pointe, and tackles head-on the main character’s cognitive dissonance, straddling the line between romance and rape. Many people in my book groups hated this book because of the topic, but I found it engrossing (not sure what they says about me, but hey).

Let me know if you’ve read My Dark Vanessa or plan to and what you think about both the controversy and plot. Regarding said controversy, it’s important to recognize the publishing industry’s whitewashing and promote work by literally anyone other than a random white man (or woman, in this case); I’m also interested in the counterargument that grooming and rape, in general, is such a common thing that it’s almost impossible to plagiarize one experience to another.

What do you think?