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373 pages, Hardcover
First published March 10, 2020
Come and be worshipped, come and be caressed.Vanessa Wye is thirty-two years old, working a dead-end hotel job in Portland, Maine, and attending grief-counseling therapy following the death of her father. She cannot move on with her life. I suppose many of us have faced similar straits, the relationship that keeps its claws embedded long after the real connection has gone. What’s different is that Vanessa’s big romance began when she was a fifteen-year-old at a prep school, and it was with a forty-something English teacher. Recently contacted by a young woman who is reviving her charges of misconduct against the same teacher, wanting Vanessa to talk about what had happened to her, Vanessa’s recollections of her experience come to the fore, helped along in her therapy.
My Dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest
My Admirable butterfly! Explain
How could you, in the gloam of Lilac Lane,
Have let uncouth, hysterical John Shade
Blubber your face, and ear, and shoulder blade?
- From the poem Pale Fire by Nabakov
It wasn’t about how young I was, not for him. Above everything else, he loved my mind. He said I had a genius-level emotional intelligence and that I wrote like a prodigy, that he could talk to me, confide in me. Lurking deep within me, he said, was a dark romanticism, the same kind he saw within himself. No one had understood that dark part of him until I came along.If you are rolling your eyes and muttering puh-leez, you are not alone. If it sounds to you like a pervy pedophile has gotten inside an unprepared kid’s head, well, I’m right there with you.
I carry his books with me, reading them whenever I can, every spare few minutes and through every meal. I start to realize the point isn’t really whether I like the books or not; it’s more about him giving me different lenses to see myself through. The poems are clues to help me understand why he’s so interested, what it is exactly that he sees in me.It also moves back and forth between showing Strane’s clear manipulation of Vanessa, and a realization that in her newfound sexuality she has a say.
I have power. Power to make it happen. Power over him. I was an idiot for not realizing this sooner.There are many literary references sprinkled throughout the book, noting some obvious and not so obvious writing of a sexual nature. Strane also uses his English class lectures to point out elements of his relationship with Vanessa in a way that is obvious to her but opaque to the rest of the class. A class discussion of blame in Ethan Frome, for example, is clearly intended for his special student.
…I wasn’t pretty, I’d have to wait a long time before anyone noticed me because boys had to mature before they cared about anything else. In the meantime, apparently my only option was to wait. Like girls sitting in the bleachers at basketball games watching boys play, or girls sitting on the couch watching boys play video games. Endless waiting. It’s funny to think how wrong Mom was about all that. Because there’s another option for those brave enough to take it—bypass boys altogether, go straight to men. Men will never make you wait, men who are starved and grateful for scraps of attention, who fall in love so hard they throw themselves at your feet.But there is one more element here that adds some depth to Vanessa’s situation. V’s freshman year roomie was one Jenny Murphy. They had become very close, until Jenny got a boyfriend and became unavailable.
I wonder how it’s possible that I once felt so much for her, yearned to be closer even as I slept beside her in the same small room, our bodies three feet apart. I think of her navy blue bathrobe hanging on the back of the door, the little boxes of raisins wrapped in cellophane that sat on the shelf above her desk, how she smeared lilac-scented lotion on her legs at night, the wet spots on her t-shirt from her freshly washed hair. Sometimes she binged on microwave pizzas, the shame pulsing out of her as she ate. I had noticed everything about her, every single thing she did, but why? What was it about her?Uh huh. Sounds like V had had more than a bit of a crush on J. It is not until after they break up, when they are sophomores, that the antics with Brane commence. Rebound, anyone?
The book has evolved gradually, of course, but took on a whole new meaning as the #MeToo movement gained steam last year. It forced Russell to not only reevaluate her characters’ journeys — an accusation plot-line had been moved to the center — but also her own experiences. “I remember a point where I was scrolling through Twitter, seeing friends and strangers putting these stories of violence and abuse out in the world, harrowing, horrible things, and all we could do for each other was reply with heart emojis,” she says. “In a way, it just seemed to highlight our powerlessness. As the movement evolved, the way all this trauma was churned through the Internet Content Machine started to feel perverse.” She continues: “I ended up feeling rather alienated from #MeToo as a whole — despite it being directly connected to my novel, my life’s work — and I used that sense of alienation to fine-tune Vanessa’s character and shape the novel’s central conflict.” - from the EW interviewV is excited as a teen, but has clearly been damaged by the relationship, as her inability to move on with her life attests. Is the narration of any fifteen-year-old reliable? Does the appeal of the new and exciting through young eyes disguise a tawdry case of sexual abuse? Is the teenager’s feeling of power anything more than a self-delusional justification for having gotten into something she really cannot handle, an excuse for the powerlessness she ultimately experiences? Was her relationship with Strane one of equals, ultimately? Even after there is a break in their connection, it is Vanessa who keeps getting in touch with Strane. Is that the behavior of a victim? What does the thirty-two-year-old Vanessa see when she looks back? Is the older Vanessa a more reliable narrator than her younger version? Clearly this book is the stuff of book club dreams, as there is so much material that is politically contemporary and personally raw. It gently mines the considerable literary lode that deals in April-December romance. In addition, the book, while keeping the story real and moving, steps back from time to time to note real-world implications that tend to slip under the radar.
On the drive home the car lurches over frost heaves and through potholes, an endless wall of pitch black woods on either side. The radio plays hits from the seventies and eighties, Dad tapping the steering wheel along to “My Sharona” while Mom sleeps, her head leaning against the window. Such a dirty mind. I always get it up for the touch of the younger kind. I watch his fingers tap to the beat as the chorus comes round again. Does he even hear what the song is about, what he’s humming along to?If you are thinking that My Dark Vanessa constitutes a 21st century Lolita; if you are thinking that My Dark Vanessa is an engaging, challenging look at a subject that affects large numbers of women; if you are thinking that My Dark Vanessa is a moving story written by a new novelist, but with the literary skill of a veteran; if you are thinking that My Dark Vanessa has already earned a place on the list of best books of 2020; and if you are thinking that My Dark Vanessa, pending the release of other outstanding 2020 fiction of course, might just possibly be the best novel of 2020, well you are not alone, because, ya know, me too.
“I never would have done it if you weren’t so willing,” he’d said. It sounds like delusion. What girl would want what he did to me? But it’s the truth, whether anyone believes it or not. Driven toward it, driven toward him, I was the kind of girl that isn’t supposed to exist: one eager to hurl herself into the path of a pedophile. But no, that word isn’t right, never has been. It’s a cop-out, a lie in the way it’s wrong to call me a victim and nothing more. He was never so simple; neither was I.
"I think we're very similar, Nessa," he whispers. "From the way you write, I can tell you're a dark romantic like me. You like dark things."
You go in a girl and come out not quite a woman but close, a girl more conscious of herself and her own power. Self-awareness is a good thing. It leads to confidence, knowing one's place in the world. He made me see myself in a way a boy my own age never could. No one can convince me that I would have been better off if I'd been like the other girls at school, giving blow jobs to hand jobs, all that endless labor, before being deemed a slut and thrown away. At least Strane loved me. At least I knew how it felt to be worshipped. He fell at my feet before he even kissed me.
To be groomed is to be loved and handled like a precious, delicate thing.
He wants to make sure he’ll always be there, no matter what. He wants to leave his fingerprints all over me, every piece of muscle and bone.
Because even if I sometimes use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else’s mouth the word turns ugly and absolute. It swallows up everything that happened. It swallows me and all the times I wanted it, begged for it. Like the laws that flatten all the sex I had with Strange before I turned eighteen into legal rape—are we supposed to believe that birthday is magic? It's as arbitrary as a marker as any. Doesn't it make sense that some girls are ready sooner?
Someday when people ask me, "Who was your first lover?" the truth will set me apart. Not some ordinary boy, but an older man: my teacher. He loved me so desperately I had to leave him behind. It was tragic, but I didn't have a choice. That's just how the world works.
I just really need it to be a love story. You know? I really, really need it to be that. Because if isn’t a love story, then what is it?