My Dark Vanessa
July 26, 2020 4:23 PM - by Kate Elizabeth Russell - Subscribe

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. [GoodReads]

I've just hit the pivot, halfway through, and am fascinated by where it might go from here. Russell is barefacedly rewriting Lolita for the #metoo era and from Lolita's perspective (up to a point) but it's more than that too; it's every teen-girl-on-campus novel, and every sad boner professor novel distilled into something not unlike a heady perfume that smells like misery.
posted by chavenet (4 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Child sexual abuse

just so it’s really, really clear
posted by sixswitch at 12:47 AM on July 27, 2020

Child sexual abuse

just so it’s really, really clear

Indeed. Since I haven't finished yet it's not clear to me yet what the "moral stance" of this book is going to be; the first half is Vanessa being groomed and convincing herself that her teacher Strane's advances are "true love"; the second half appears to be the reckoning.

It is wrenching, for sure.
posted by chavenet at 5:11 AM on July 27, 2020

So, I just finished. I have to say I was disappointed (though not surprised) that Vanessa never really comes to accept that she was groomed and then raped. For her the "love story" reigns supreme, it has become her, she can't untangle it. This is tragic, and if nothing else this novel lays out clearly the permanent, disfiguring damage done by this kind of abuse + gaslighting + rape + other manipulation from an early age. Objectively speaking the novel does a remarkable job of portraying the reality distortion field that Vanessa built up to keep herself sort-of sane -- after a certain point she is the only arguing her point of view, what happened is more than clear to all around her, as well as to the reader, and it is shocking. I was impressed that Russell resisted "easy" redemptions, the chilly relationship with another victim/survivor (Taylor) and the non-resolution with Mom; it's depressing to think that after all that suffering the best Vanessa can do is adopt a dog, but there it is.

This wasn't an easy read, but it was very well written, the characters are memorable & the problem a real one.

[Ironically, I was watching Hugh Grant in The Rewrite out of the corner of my eye while reading MDV and that movie has a similar story resolved in the most privileged way; middle aged college prof in an age-inappropriate relationship with a student gets into trouble, shrugs and apologizes and all is hunky dory. ]
posted by chavenet at 4:56 AM on July 30, 2020

It's a very compelling novel and starts strong. The timeline alternates between 15/16 year old Vanessa and 32 year old Vanessa, showing how the abuse has been with her all that time. It's theme is how we lie to ourselves and create this false reality in order to reconcile disappointment with the expectations we have of life. Vanessa wants to be in love, loved, special (don't we all?), but does so with Strane, a teacher on the prowl who takes advantage.

The ending is rather unsatisfying. Russell is, I think, trying to show how there's no easy solution to suffering this abuse, especially when you've invested so much time justifying it, and life just sort of limps along. There's no magical third act that changes everything. Vanessa just has to keep on with the life she's made for herself, however unsatisfying that is. But narratively it does feel flat, sort of an anti-ending. Overall it's an excellent book with a lot of food for thought.
posted by zardoz at 2:00 PM on March 17, 2022

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