Monday, May 18, 2020

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

When Vanessa Wye returns to her private boarding school, Browick, for sophomore year, she's uncertain what the year holds for her.  Having lost the friendship of her freshman year roommate, Jenny, she's starting anew and alone.  A scholarship kid at a wealthy school with high expectations, she's easily overwhelmed by the work and embittered at the loss of her friend.  Isolated and vulnerable, she welcomes a newfound connection with her English teach, Mr. Strane, who singles her out, gives her extracurricular books to read, and makes her feel special.  While it seems to begin innocently enough, Strane's behavior soon begins to edge into the inappropriate, oddly personal compliments, stolen touches, and eventually a whole illicit relationship.  But it's what Vanessa wants....or so she thinks.  As the pair's relationship escalates to an inconceivable pedophilic fantasy, Vanessa, believing herself in love, puts everything on the line.

As soon as he says this, I become someone somebody else is in love with, and not just some dumb boy my own age but a man who has already lived an entire life, who has done and seen so much and still thinks I'm worthy of his love.  I feel forced over a threshold, thrust out of my ordinary life into a place where it's possible for grown men to be so pathetically in love with me they fall at my feet.

In alternating chapters, we get a glimpse of Vanessa's adult life as she watches events unfold when another student of Strane's reports his sexual misconduct.  Suddenly, Vanessa's life is in the spotlight as Taylor searches for allies to speak out against Strane, but Vanessa doesn't see herself as a victim, never has.  Her life tells a different story, though.  Struggling under the weight of her wasted potential and broken relationships, Vanessa finally begins to plumb the depths of the damage Strane's attentions did to her.

I think it will be just one of many unbelievable things about 2020 that one of my favorite books of the year will be one about a young girl and the pedophile she loves, but here we are.  My Dark Vanessa is as compelling as it is hard to read.  Vanessa is a marvelously drawn, emotionally complex character, clearly damaged by her high school relationship with Mr. Strane that reaches its tentacles into her adult life, and yet stubbornly unwilling to think of herself or be thought of as a victim.  Russell has achieved that fragile balance of creating a character who really isn't likeable and creating a character who still draws readers' sympathy and hope for redemption.  My Dark Vanessa is a vivid and layered story about power, consent, abuse, victimhood and the far-reaching repercussions of a dark and twisted "romance" that should never have been.  Highly recommended, if you have a stomach for the subject matter.

Copy provided to me by the publisher in exchange for review consideration.

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