My Dark VanessaMy 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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ApartmentApartment by Teddy Wayne 
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 Stars, rounded up.

This page-turning character study, ode to loneliness, and quasi-exploration of toxic masculinity’s detrimental effect on guy-guy platonic relationships makes for a fascinating read. Author Teddy Wayne has an aptitude for displaying painful truths and sharp observations with candid, witty prose. Of all his novels, this is my favorite to-date.

I’ve often wondered at the inscrutable bonds shared between men, especially straight men. In American society, there seems to be a code of conduct that I, as a woman, have never been taught. It mystified me when my late-teens guy friends would sit one seat apart (with a “buffer seat” in between) at the movies. When I asked them why they did that, they looked at me like I was nuts.

“Because,” one of them told me, “we’re guys.”

“Yeah,” the other chimed in. “We need our space.”

“Is this, like, a stretching-out-your-legs thing?” I asked.

They both shook their heads.

“It’s just a guy thing,” the first one reiterated. “You wouldn’t understand.”

He’s right—I didn’t. (And still don’t.) But in Apartment, Teddy Wayne’s approach to the often-unspoken intricacies found in certain male-male friendships gave me a bit more insight. It’s the fear of being vulnerable and/or emasculated that keeps the main characters—awkward, introspective Unnamed Narrator, and laconic, unworldly Billy—from building upon their intimacy in way that doesn’t feel like a power exchange.

Unnamed Narrator is that quintessential outskirts-guy who hasn’t opened himself up to close friendships or romantic relationships due to serious daddy issues and a weak sense of self. He’s also somewhat spoon-fed, since the same father who abandoned him in young adulthood is now responsible for footing the bill on his rent-controlled New York apartment. He’s aware of his privilege—even experiences guilt because of it—but also resents thinking of himself as privileged. All the while, he’s trying to make his mark in the collegiate writing world (which he assumes to be little more than a pipe dream, considering the lackluster reception his stories receive).

In a crucial moment of enduring scathing literary criticism from his professor and classmates, the narrator feels particularly insecure and humiliated; then a fellow student, the effortlessly charismatic, blue-collar Billy, comes to his defense. Billy’s casually offered snippet of praise supplies the narrator with much-desired hope for his authorial future. An affinity between the two aspiring writers—lubricated by large quantities of alcohol, shared paternal abandonment issues, and similar social detachment strategies—rapidly develops. Unnamed Narrator impulsively offers Billy to become his rent-free roommate with the condition that Billy cleans once a week and pays for some groceries.

At first, the arrangement seems solid: the roommates have fun hanging out while maintaining productivity in their writing. Billy is the more talented of the two, but he doesn’t flaunt his superior craftsmanship, which increases Unnamed Narrator’s respect and admiration for him. Their dynamic is a classic case of hero worship mixed with the giddiness of a new friendship’s “honeymoon period.”

Time passes and their relationship deepens; however, the narrator increasingly offers Billy financial assistance, and the imbalance that was present from the inception of their acquaintance grows outwardly problematic. Their fundamental differences in personality, world view, and upbringing become clearer, until the slow-building conflict between them gives way to a quietly devastating conclusion.

Apartment is one of those sleeper hits you might think to underestimate before realizing it hooked its claws into your heart from the start. It’s honest and observant in a way that can wound the reader, because it’s easy to imagine this scenario unfolding in real life (and variations of it already have). People will sometimes resort to desperate measures to feel less lonely; and the consequences of these actions can ultimately influence future relationships—not only with others, but with oneself.

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LusterLuster by Raven Leilani
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Phenomenal read.

Raven Leilani possesses an offhand brilliance. Her prose flows smoothly, naturally; seemingly without effort. As a writer, I’m hyperaware of the hard work that goes into preparing a book for publication. But as I was reading this novel–nay, experiencing it–never once did I consider how many edits Luster must have endured to arrive at the completed stage.

Over a two-day period, I immersed myself in this modern tale of a doom-and-gloom, problematic young person. The voice of narrator Edie is unforgettable. She’s harsh, but in a manner that’s not necessarily off-putting. At times, however, I wanted to shake some sense into her. Sure, she’s young, but why must she be so foolish?

Then again…I was talking with my friend the other day about what nincompoops we were during our twenties. Still hung over from the perceived invincibility of our teenage selves, it seemed inevitable we’d push the envelope even further into the territory of “a step away from certain death.” We were often drunk and/or high. Smoked our lungs into the danger zone. Searched for purpose in the midst of the party. Allowed our romantic partners take advantage of us…laid ourselves out as doormats. Developed imbalanced friendships, jumped from job to to job, sometimes bed to bed. We grew numb; apathetic. Self-loathing.

So, when I reflect on my post-college youth, I notice some uneasy similarities between Edie and the younger version of me. The lack of motivation, the constant depression, self-love, poor interpersonal connections and poorer decisions on who to date…the list goes on. Edie is bound and determined to wallow in her own apathy. At the same time, she’s won’t fully acknowledge her self-destructive capabilities, other than to tell the reader, in a matter-of-fact way, what she does to prove she’s alive. There’s a yearning in her for happiness/contentedness, but she thinks she doesn’t deserve it. Her upbringing and traumatic life experiences exacerbate her tendency to disappear into her worst self.

As a result, she engages in a cringeworthy, precarious relationship with the least deserving man ever, and falls into an odd, unbalanced dynamic with his wife and daughter. Bizarre events ensue. I was on the edge of my seat, waiting for her to either find her wings, or plunge into an apocalyptic tailspin. For the sake of keeping the spoilers at bay, I will only say that, by the end of the book, there is a suggestion of an open ending, yet also a resolution that feels more authentic than your average wrap-it-up-with-a-bow conclusion.

In short, this was a terrific book (likely the best I’ve read all year), stuffed with humorous zingers, apt social observations, and blistering clarity. Weeks after reading Luster, the narrator’s voice remains firmly ensconced within my memory. In wide-eyed awe, I anticipate Raven Leilani’s next novel.