I didn’t know if I’d like this book, but I found myself listening to it at every opportunity and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s the story of Vanessa, a fifteen year old in a boarding school in Maine who has a sexual relationship with her English teacher. Years later, when other victims come forward and they look to her for support, she doesn’t know how to respond. This is her story, told over 17 years.
I’m finding it much harder to describe this book than I thought I would, because the words we use for sexual abuse (like rape, and victim, and power) are so important, and that’s what makes this book so interesting and so challenging. Vanessa loves Strane and refuses to see herself as a victim — yet Strane is clearly manipulating her, and the effects on Vanessa as both a teen and an adult are absolutely devastating. As are the many ways school authorities and even Vanessa’s parents fail her.
The power in this book is the way we see the relationship through Vanessa’s troubled and not-so-reliable eyes, and yet as a reader we can also see exactly how he manipulates her. We experience the way he gets in her head.
This story is not just about what happened to Vanessa in a single year, it’s about the way it impacted everything she feels about herself and others. I know some readers found this book too long, and there are parts in the middle that feel a bit long, but I didn’t mind the length. I think this book needed to be drawn out in order to really show how this relationship impacted many years of Vanessa’s life. I also thought it was important to show how Vanessa’s relationship with Strane prevents her from building meaningful relationships with anyone else in her life.
This is a book that will have you asking yourself over and over again – what does it mean to be a victim? How do you heal when you love your abuser? Do victims of sexual abuse have a responsibility to come forward?
Two things detracted just a little bit – I had trouble following the Taylor storyline at times. And I found it a bit clunky when it talks about the “Me Too” movement, which I think is because the author had worked on this book for many years and needed to react to recent events.
I appreciated Russell’s use of various literary references like Nabokov and Sylvia Plath. I’ve read Lolita and found it horrifying, but it also didn’t feel real to me in the way this book did. I also liked the way Russell brought in pop culture references like Britney Spears and Fiona Apple, to question how much we as a society sexualize girls.
This is the sort of introspective, emotional novel that worked really well as an audiobook, and I thought the narrator was excellent, giving Vanessa’s voice different characteristics as a teen and as an adult, and giving Strane a distinctive voice.
Vanessa isn’t a likable character, but I certainly found her a sympathetic one. I was surprised to find that when I finished this book, I missed her. She’s a character, like Emma in Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It, that I won’t be forgetting any time soon.