My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My Dark Vanessa explores the trope of middle-aged-man-seduces-young-girl through the abused party’s perspective. Narrator Vanessa, deliberately blind to her own mistreatment, scorns and rejects the common labels of “victim” and “survivor.” Instead, she chooses to see herself as a complicit party in a mutually desired relationship. The novel evokes inevitable comparisons to Lolita; however, it does not recreate Vladimir Nabokov‘s vision (though author Kate Elizabeth Russell certainly pays homage to it in certain scenes).
My friend and I were recently chatting about books and she revealed Lolita was a “fantasy read”—and confessed she wished the main seduction scene contained more heat. I was nonplussed. Did we read the same book? From my perspective, Lolita is essentially a tragedy with comedic and satiric elements. Its implicit eroticism is heightened by Vladimir Nabokov‘s prose, but it’s not a hot and sexy romance meant to inspire arousal. To each her own…though in all honesty, my friend’s opinion disturbs me, because it epitomizes deliberate misinterpretation of an author’s intent, and fetishizes hebephelia.
In My Dark Vanessa, there are numerous references to Vladimir Nabokov‘s work (particularly, Lolita and Pale Fire), since teacher Jacob Strane uses these novels to groom student Vanessa into normalizing a forbidden love mentality. “Poor Mr. Strane” can’t help his cravings. What bad luck, to fall in love with a teenager! He doesn’t desire to seduce other students: he’s only in love with her. Or so Vanessa first believes…
My Dark Vanessa is not written to titillate. In fact, I struggled with nausea each time Strane made advances on his “special” pupil. Their sex scenes are not overly graphic, but they definitely contain the “ick” factor. The slow build and subsequent consummation of the main characters’ sexual and emotional relationship is written at a queasy pace (deliberate enough to draw out the tension—once the seduction reaches its climax, events rapidly escalate to a point of no return).
What seems like a series of glaring red flags to world-wise adults is interpreted as beacons of romantic possibility to lonely, naïve young Vanessa. Alternating between flashbacks and the present effectively illustrates the extent of the psychological damage Vanessa has incurred. It’s a fairly realistic portrayal of an unstable young woman unable to let go of her “first love”, since he made such a formative impression on her at a pivotal age during the height of her vulnerability. She clings to the memory of their relationship well into adulthood, and returns to him time and again even after he discards her for new conquests.
Kate Elizabeth Russell‘s debut novel is both a cautionary tale and fictional exploration of how those in power (such as teachers, and other figures of authority brought to public shame for their egregious transgressions during the #MeToo era) can exploit their privilege and status as leverage to sow seeds of doubt in their accusers’ credibility. It’s all too easy to imagine how frequently this type of teacher/student situation arises in both public and private academic settings. And easier still to imagine school scandals swept under the rug by self-serving administrations choosing to silence whistleblowers and protect their own reputations over revealing explosive, damaging truths about staff members.
Though the pacing lagged during the last third of the book, I nevertheless continued to turn the page at a steady rate. I rooted for Vanessa’s rejection of her self-imposed denial, yet found myself frustrated with her stagnancy and stubborn refusal to see Strane for what he was (a serial sexual and emotional predator of young women). At the same time, I understand how deep-seated trauma can result in the deepest form of denial and ultimately impede a person’s ability to grow and change. The book’s ending is less of a resolution than some readers might find satisfactory, but it’s realistic in the sense that the grieving process is complicated (therefore, healing through acceptance can be difficult to achieve).
All in all, My Dark Vanessa is a solid debut novel that offers a compelling, memorable read. The subject matter is as relevant now as I suspect it will prove in the years to come, since the #MeToo movement has only just begun.
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