“My Dark Vanessa” is the incredibly dark and emotional story of 15-year old high school sophomore Vanessa Wye and the love affair that begins with her 42-year old English teacher, Jacob Strane, during the fall of 2000. In 2017, a former Browick student accuses Strane of sexual abuse and urges Vanessa to come forward about her relationship with him. Now 32, Vanessa becomes faced with an impossible decision: to betray her first love who has remained a constant presence in her life, or completely redefine who she is by reconsidering her long held beliefs of what exactly happened between them. The story alternates between past and present, going in to great depth about Vanessa’s past and how it has continued to impact her over time.
Kate Elizabeth Russell’s character development throughout this book is phenomenal. I loved how complex, strong and relatable Vanessa’s character was. I felt like I was planted inside her mind, easily seeing things through her eyes in an alarming, yet fascinating way. I found myself truly amazed by her and the inner battle she constantly fought with herself when it came to deciphering her thoughts and feelings about her relationship with Strane; was what she experienced with him abuse or a tragic love story? If this was abuse, why did she remain complicit for so many years afterward? was Strane a pedophile or just unlucky to fall in love with a teenager, forever being branded as a deviant? How different could her life have been had this relationship not occurred? The exploration of these questions throughout the book was both intriguing and heart-wrenching to read because Vanessa is so firm in her belief that she is not a victim of abuse and was willing to engage in the sexual relationship with Strane; that he worshipped her, genuinely loved her, and was nothing but careful and kind with her.
“I see him so clearly now, understand how lonely it must be for him, wanting the wrong thing, the bad thing, while living in a world that would surely villainize him if it knew.”– Vanessa Wye, My Dark Vanessa
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“I just feel…” I press the heals of my hands into my thighs. “I can’t lose the thing I’ve held on to for so long. You know?” My face twists up from the pain of pushing it out. “I just really need it to be a love story. You know? I really, really need it to be that.”
“I know,” she says.
“Because if it isn’t a love story, then what is it?” I look to her glassy eyes, her face of wide-open empathy.
“It’s my life,” I say. “This has been my whole life.”– Vanessa Wye to Ruby, My Dark Vanessa
With Strane, I was constantly infuriated by his character and despised his behavior throughout the book. I could not stand how manipulative he was with Vanessa, the Browick staff, and his other victims. However, I found it fascinating to get glimpses of his mind and see how he would justify certain behaviors; the lies he would say in order to assure himself, or be assured of by Vanessa, that he was not a monster and prevent himself from feeling guilty for his actions. Strane was really good at giving Vanessa a false sense of control in their relationship, claiming that she held all the power between them when that definitely was not the case.
“It’s important that you never feel coerced. That’s the only way I’ll be able to live with myself…you’re in charge here, Vanessa. You decide what we do.”– Jacob Strane, My Dark Vanessa
Watching him groom Vanessa and displace his weaknesses and fears on to her was really uncomfortable to experience because she was so young and naive, an “easy target” for someone like Strane to take advantage of due to her strong desire for love and attention. The deep hold on her that he managed to maintain was truly frightening, and the negative affect it had on her ability to have both romantic and friendly relationships with others was deeply upsetting.
“It wasn’t about how young I was, not for him. Above everything else, he loved my mind. He said I had genius-level emotional intelligence and that I wrote like a prodigy, that he could talk to me, confide in me. Lurking deep within me, he said, was a dark romanticism, the same kind he saw within himself. No one had ever understood that dark part of him until I came along. “It’s just my luck,” he said, “that when I finally find my soulmate, she’s fifteen years old.”– Vanessa Wye, My Dark Vanessa
Despite the story’s unsettling subject matter and being difficult to read at times, I was blown away by this powerful, thought-provoking and incredibly well written debut novel. It serves as an accurate portrayal of how the system has failed women when it comes to sexual assault, bringing to light examples of mistakes we can learn from and how we can improve. With the continued rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, this book could not have arrived at a more perfect time; opening up an uncomfortable but necessary dialogue about consent, abuse, grooming, manipulation, and the horrifying psychological consequences it can produce. “My Dark Vanessa” is a compelling read that will be tough to put down and leave the reader with so much to reflect on long after they’ve finished reading it.
BEER RECOMMENDATION: “My Dark Vanessa” is best paired with Triple Barrel GBS by Hardywood Brewing. Triple Barrel GBS is an imperial/double milk stout that was created by aging their traditional gingerbread stout in brandy barrels for 11 months, then aging again for 4 more months- half in Caribbean rum barrels and the other half in A. Smith Bowman bourbon barrels. Nearly black in color, this highly enjoyable, boozy beer has notes of white ginger, honey, maple, cinnamon, vanilla, bourbon, brandy and rum.