My Dark Vanessa – Published March, 2020
“Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.
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.” – Goodreads
This isn’t really a liked/disliked type of book, and to be completely honest, I am struggling with reviewing and rating this one. It was really hard to get started with this one, because it’s so dark and heavy. The first 10 or so pages really made me uncomfortable (as did much of the book), and I almost gave up on it, believing I couldn’t power through. But, it’s our book club pick for June, so I did power through, taking me longer to finish than a book usually would.
This book is written really well. Despite how uncomfortable you might feel whilst reading it, you want to know what happens, and it keeps you engaged. Your skin is crawling, but you’re engaged. That’s the mark of a good book, even if it’s not a “good” story. This book is not happy, in any way, shape, or form. So, if you need there to be a ray of sunlight, or a positive character that gives you optimism, this book is not for you. It is heartbreaking, gut wrenching, and everyone seems miserable. But it is powerful, beautifully written, and important.
If you haven’t read this one, you should know there are some major content warnings that should be attached: rape, sexual assault, gaslighting, addiction, underage drinking, graphic content and language, pedophilia, suicide, body shaming, verbal abuse, unhealthy eating patterns, child pornography, and possibly more.
Vanessa sees what happens to her (she is groomed, gaslighted, and raped by her teacher) totally different than everyone else (including readers). She believes she hasn’t been raped, because she was willing. She doesn’t realize the power Strane has over her entire life, her every thought, and the way she sees herself. He has completely manipulated her, and it has defined her entire life for over 17 years. The story shifts between her time as a teenager, and her relationship with her teacher, and 2017 Vanessa, still feeling the effects of what happened to her, and still allowing herself to be controlled by Strane. This incorrect perception that she has is frustrating, to say the least. She’s unwilling to come forward, even when the #metoo movement starts, because she doesn’t want the attention or to ruin Strane. Even though he very clearly ruined her.
As others come forward, Vanessa brings light to another common perception of today’s rape culture. That some abuse or rape is worse than others. Trauma is trauma, what matters is how our brains react and handle it. When other girls go to the media saying Strane touched them or groped them, she easily dismisses it with comments that imply, “oh that’s nothing”. This is not only unhealthy, but telling of her own trauma and shedding light on how victims are sometimes treated.
Overall, this is a tough one to rate. Did I enjoy it? Not at all. But did I put it down? Also no. Do I like it? No. But is the writing really well done? Absolutely. I originally was going to give it 4 stars, because some parts dragged on, making it seem longer than necessary. But I got to thinking, maybe that was done on purpose. To make you really understand how long this went on and how agonizing it was, even if Vanessa didn’t realize she was in agony. So, 5 stars? I think? I don’t know.