book review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell



MY DARK VANESSA by Kate Elizabeth Russell

William Morrow, 2020


My Dark Vanessa was an absolute tour de force and well worth all the hype it has been receiving.  The entire framework of the novel is startling – Vanessa, now in her 30s, reflects on a relationship she had with her high school English teacher, Mr. Strane, especially in light of that same teacher being accused of sexual abuse by another student, a young woman named Taylor.  I think this novel in most authors’ minds would have been conceived around Taylor – and indeed, though she’s mostly a shadowy figure in this book, there would be plenty to dig into if she were thrust into the limelight: the difficulty of coming forward with abuse allegations when you can’t produce ‘evidence’, the strength that requires, the unwarranted backlash it solicits.

Vanessa however is an entirely different kind of heroine.  In fact, we learn that in her 30s, she’s still in contact with Strane, and that she doesn’t believe Taylor’s allegations.  Vanessa doesn’t believe herself to have been abused, and she still sees her relationship with Strane as a love story – albeit a doomed one.  It’s a premise that could feel almost deliberately belligerent toward its reader, but what Kate Elizabeth Russell is able to achieve with this book is a textured analysis of the difficulty in identifying as a victim.  My Dark Vanessa doesn’t have a comforting and predictable trajectory of Vanessa slowly coming to terms with the reality of her situation – the process is messier and the conclusion arguably less satisfying, but it feels truer to life and successfully challenges the disturbing concept that some survivors are ‘good victims’ while others aren’t.

It’s a disturbing, uncomfortable read – the passages which detail the ways Strane groomed and manipulated Vanessa are almost unbearable in their verisimilitude – but at the same time it’s almost impossible to put down.  The Lolita intertextuality is occasionally heavy-handed, that’s my one complaint, but the Nabokov references ultimately do serve to give the reader an idea of how 15-year-old Vanessa attempts to make sense of her situation through the classic novels that Strane lends her.  It’s a wonderfully paced, brilliantly characterized book that’s as harrowing as it is engrossing.

You can pick up a copy of My Dark Vanessa here on Book Depository.

23 thoughts on “book review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

  1. This one has been really hyped and actually I realized I didn’t even know what it was about, I had no idea it was this kind of story. I love Lolita so in a weird way I’m interested in that intertextuality, although I guess it’s always going to seem a bit heavyhanded since that book is kind of in a class of its own. Fantastic review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ohhhh that’s so interesting! I heard so much about the contents I felt like I’d already read the book by the time I picked it up 😂 I’d definitely be interested in hearing your thoughts on this one if you pick it up, as a fellow Lolita fan! I felt like there were moments of heavy-handedness but overall I still found the Lolita intertextuality to be an interesting addition. Anyway definitely one worth keeping on your radar next time you’re in the mood for (dark, twisted) fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review, I’m glad you loved this one! It somehow manages to sound more incredible every time I hear something more about it. The fact that she doesn’t change her perspective in an easy or obvious way sounds so intriguing. I’m excited to pick this one up!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. God it’s good. The absolute emotional truth of it, the way that Strane uses Vanessa’s social isolation and intellectual frustration as tools of manipulation… it rang very, very true, and cast an alarming light on some memories from my own adolescence (although nothing like this happened to me).

    Liked by 1 person

    • IT’S SO GOOD. I’ve been thinking a lot about a line you wrote in your review about how scary it is to think about what would have happened if the right/wrong person came along when you were 15 because GOD, SAME. I saw so much of myself in 15-year-old Vanessa it was scary.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This book reminds me of the essay Vanessa Springora (an editor) has published, a memoir actually about her being “in love” with a famous French author at the age of 14 (and moving with him at the age of 17). She also believed she was in love and never thought that he was using her. The man is despicable. He has published books about his sexual fantasies, his trips to Thailand to sleep with 8 y.old boys.. and for years and years, he was invited on television .. When her book came out in January, it was a bomb in France. She didn’t want to see herself as a victim until .. until recently. I haven’t read her book (Le consentement / the consent) but I have seen her on TV and she’s smart and the book has received awesome critics. She has developed some hindsight and now sees what was really happening at this time of her life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh WOW that all sounds harrowing. Yes that reminds me a lot of My Dark Vanessa! And just goes to show how important novels like this are; I’ve never read another book on abuse where the protagonist defends their abuser but it’s SO common and such an important perspective to acknowledge.


  5. Wonderful review! These were my feelings about this too – a few too many Lolita references for my taste, but understandable. This was such a powerful book!


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