Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

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.


  13 comments for “Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

  1. May 19, 2020 at 7:42 am

    I read this recently and really liked it too. I know what you mean about how it felt clunky when discussing the#MeToo movement – and I agree with your reasoning as to the likely reason.

    • May 19, 2020 at 4:11 pm

      Thanks for the input, I’m glad to hear you agree – it feels like a minor point in an otherwise really moving book.

  2. May 19, 2020 at 1:31 pm

    Wonderful review! I’m currently reading this book and even just 50 pages into it, it is already giving me SO much to think about. Thanks for the heads up about the “clunkiness” of the #MeToo movement commentary – it’s always nice to be aware of potential issues with a book in advance.

    • May 19, 2020 at 4:13 pm

      Thanks Hannah! I’m glad you like it so far. It certainly pulls you in right away. There are issues with the book but hope you’ll find it as thought-provoking as I did.

  3. May 19, 2020 at 2:09 pm

    I finished this last night and overall thought it was well done although for me it ran out of steam a bit and the Henry Plough storyline a misstep.

    • May 19, 2020 at 4:09 pm

      That’s an interesting point – can you say more about why you found his story a misstep? Did you think he behaved inappropriately? I definitely thought “what was he thinking” — but then you’re seeing him through Vanessa’s eyes so it’s a little hard to tell.

      I think there are plot issues but still finding it a haunting story. The older she got, the sadder I felt about how isolated she was. I wonder if the audio made a difference in how I reacted.

  4. Charles Cicco
    May 19, 2020 at 8:02 pm

    The ending showed a glimmer of hope with Vanessa addressing her problem. She also found Henry Plough to be repulsive; an indication of growth amidst all her other issues. I felt like “I wish her well” on her way to recovery even if she is fictional. Wish I can find more men commenting. I thought this novel to be excellent and felt the need to read it a second time.

    • May 20, 2020 at 7:59 am

      Thanks for the comment, Charles. I’m also feeling like I need to re-read parts of it. And I appreciate your point about men commenting on this book — I really hope men are reading this book as well as women. Issues relating to sexuality and consent are so important to understand.

  5. MrsDMVH
    June 8, 2020 at 2:56 pm

    It was really interesting to see Vanessa and her thought process on what happened. I think that is what I enjoyed most in this book!

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