My Dark Vanessa

Kate Elizabeth Russell | March 2020 | pgs: 373

My Experience:

I’ve never read Lolita…or any book it birthed, for that matter. In my opinion, May/December romances are one thing, but, someone of authority, with the responsibility of mentoring children, having a sexual relationship with a child, is a whole other thing. Not my cup of tea, even in fiction. My Dark Vanessa (MDV) follows the same pretense of Lolita. Older professor, younger, naive, pretty but vastly insecure student, start a sexual relationship. She thinks he’s her savior, mentor, protector. Sacrificing everything to love her. He says at 12, she’s every bit the woman he needs. 😒🙄🤦🏾‍♀️ Come on man.

Lolita, published in 1955, was written by a Russian-American man, Vladimir Nabokov. The book has received plenty of fan fare. It has been named one of Times List of Best 100 Novels, Stanley Kubrick made a movie adaptation in the 60’s, and its launched an entire body of plays and books attempting to capture the dynamic of its protagonist Lolita, a young girl having an affair with her teacher, she thinks, of her own will. The term ‘lolita’, now, being a pop culture reference used to describe a young girl who is “precociously seductive…without connotations of victimization”. 😒 #DeathToThePatriarchy

MDV follows the same formula. Vanessa Wye wants desperately to be free of her mundane existence in a local public school, so, She begs her parents to send her away to a private boarding school. They relent and off she goes. While there, she meets an older Professor. Eventually he makes his move: one on one time after class to tutor her and giving her special gifts (one gift is the novel ’Lolita’). No spoilers, but the affair is doomed from the start and eventually, they are found out. Its the unraveling that pulls you into this story.

Vanessa is our narrator and she tells her story from her adult perspective. Current time is actually years and years after the affair and she is a woman living on her own. The Professor has been accused of sexual misconduct by yet another student and she is being forced to reconcile her experiences. Vanessa is being pursued by a journalist and an accuser to tell her story, or risk having it told without her input. She reaches out to the Professor in what could be said is an attempt to spark up something with him, though she knows she’s ‘aged out’. Vanessa presents as ‘fine’ but, through the telling, we quickly learn its not really the case.

Pros: In the year of our Lord, 2020, when my ‘DnF’ trigger finger is pretty heavy and quick to left swipe a book off my Kindle over minuscule triggers – I made it to the end of this one. Go fucking figure. As I reflect on what held my attention through the valleys of the storyline, Im sure it was the realistic characters. Vanessa is intriguing and far from a slut, if thats what your thinking. She presents as every bit a young girl caught in the rapture of attention from an older man she respects. She feels smart, mature, attractive. More important than her peers. The Professor is a sloppy cad and blatantly sets her up at every turn and uses the schools desire to stay under radar in such matters, to his advantage. Vanessa’s parents play a role here and are written as stereotypical white suburban parents: naive and oblivious.

The storytelling is the real winner. We are with Vanessa as she, very honestly, recalls her trauma and faces the truth of the manipulation. Listening as she confronts her past is very interesting and will keep you reading. There is no overt focus on sex scenes but, the author does paint a picture of intimacy that seems more realistic.

Cons: Im not sure this is a con but, some of the dialogue/situations with the adults and Vanessa are rather cringy. For example, when the schools Principal hears about inappropriate behavior between Vanessa and Professor, the female principal completely fumbles the investigation, questioning Vanessa in front of another student making both students uncomfortable, and instead of listening, she gives the child an explanation for what has happened – her assumed risky behavior. Unfathomable but, highly probable. The mother is suspect here as well. Discovering, but holding the child’s secret. Treating her not much differently than the Professor – like an adult, she is not. Scared men and women take comfort in blaming children for the bad behavior of men. They do not desire to see the truth, to avoid having to deal with the truth. The chapters around this incident were tough to get through without screaming and throwing this book into the deep-end of the pool.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. Super trigger-ry though so if you flinch easily over sexual content, manipulation of a minor and purposefully oblivious adults…move around, this one ain’t for you. Very complex characters and situations. I think in the end I felt like everyone had likely paid for the role they played, complacent or not.

My extra ten cents:

While reading this book in July, I discovered there was a fair amount of controversy around its release. MDV is a fictional telling, from a white woman, that gained a huge deal with a large publishing house. According to some, it very closely resembles a true story from Latina writer, Wendy Ortiz, who released her story earlier, under the title Excavation, to considerably less fan fare..and cash advance. 😒 This was happening as Oprah was getting major backlash for including American Dirt, a story about Mexican immigrants by a white woman, on her book club list. 😖 For the masses, pain, is always more digestible in white. 🙄

Listen, Im not reading any other books about grown men and little girls. 🥴 I do believe Russell likely borrowed from Lolita, Excavation, and maybe her own experiences. (She claims to have started the book when she was 16.) I also believe the publishing world needs to get their shit together and stop stealing the pain and work of minorities and giving it to white women in order to support the ridiculous narrative of their superiority and perpetual need for protection. We ain’t buying. I’ll purchase Excavation to show, at least, equal support. 💁🏾‍♀️

#GoodBook 32 of 42

The StoryGraph Summary: 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?

Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of Room, My Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.

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