Not surprisingly, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, there has been a spate of new novels exploring the long term damage of sexual abuse. In the past two years, predatory high school teachers have factored into two of the best of these — Kate Walbert's His Favorites and Susan Choi's Trust Exercise. Kate Elizabeth Russell's explosive debut now joins the line-up.
My Dark Vanessa toggles between two parallel timelines as it meticulously tracks the eponymous narrator's affair with her New England boarding school English teacher, which began in 2000, when she was 15 and he was 42, and her painstaking, reluctant recognition 17 years later — in the midst of the #MeToo movement — of the devastation it has wrought on her life.
My Dark Vanessa is less subtle than Choi's and Walbert's novels — which are not among the dozens of works Russell lists on her website as influences. But it is set apart from the pack on several counts: It's a page-turner structured to amp up suspense, but it's also self-consciously bookish, with frequent references to transgressive relationships in literature, including Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. It features a lot of graphic sex, pretty much all of which is distasteful. And its narrator is not particularly likable. In fact, she's nowhere near as sympathetic as the grown woman in Walbert's His Favorites, who recounts painful memories of her unwanted sexual relationship with her 34-year-old New England boarding school teacher when she was 15, and her stymied attempts to expose it.
Propelled by questions about whether, when, and how Vanessa will see the light and her teacher will finally be held accountable, Russell's novel offers a nuanced portrait of why some women refuse to view themselves as victims of abuse: "He loved me, he loved me," Vanessa insists. Plus, didn't she beg him for more? (In The Power Notebooks, Katie Roiphe addresses this issue in the relationship she had as a 15-year-old with her divorced, 32-year-old rabbi, writing about her shame for liking and wanting the things they did together, but also her abiding sense of wrongness.)
Russell captures the insidious cunning with which Mr. Strane flatters, grooms, and seduces 15-year-old Vanessa, a lonely sophomore on full scholarship. He tells her she's special and compares her red hair to the fallen maple leaves on campus. He feeds her literature about redheads, including Sylvia Plath's "Ariel" ("Out of the ash, I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air") and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, another redhead from Maine. Warning her not to tell anyone — the first test of her ability to keep a secret — he gives her his marked up copy of Lolita, which she mistakes for a story of forbidden love. This becomes her twisted bible and a touchstone for Russell's novel — which takes its title from the stanza Strane flags in another Nabokov novel, Pale Fire, which begins, "My dark Vanessa, worshipped and caressed."
Strane is a demonically oily operator who "berates himself to make you feel sorry for him." He is careful to absolve himself from blame at every turn, seeking Vanessa's approval at each inappropriate squeeze of the knee and kiss, disingenuously saying, "the last thing I want is to overstep." But he also convinces her that she's dark and bad, that he would have done nothing if she hadn't wanted him to. His attentions lead her to feel treasured and powerful, as he reminds her how much he's risking and she becomes aware of her ability to destroy him. The novel charts how, over time, he plays on her fear of abandonment and she plays on his fear of exposure.
Troubling scenes of shaming call to mind Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, another book surprisingly missing from Russell's website Reading List. As with Monica Lewinsky — a case Strane cites to scare Vanessa from going public — it's the powerless girl who takes the fall.
Yet Vanessa remains defensive of Strane. "I'm mad at the world that turned him into a monster when all he did was have the bad luck of falling in love with me," she declares, even as other girls start to come forward with complaints. She believes his denials, and insists that her relationship with him was far preferable to the demeaning treatment, including slut-shaming, she witnesses among her contemporaries.
This blockbuster about emotional baggage comes with some baggage. While Russell insists on her right not to address her personal life, it's clear that her novel, worked on for nearly 20 years and reportedly rejected by some 60 agents before landing a seven-figure advance, is the product of a deep obsession with what Vanessa admits becomes her area of expertise, "the age-gap trope." Dedicated to "the real-life Dolores Hazes and Vanessa Wyes whose stories have not yet been heard, believed, or understood," My Dark Vanessa also provoked a pre-publication controversy when a Latinx author, Wendy C. Ortiz, expressed bitterness about how Excavation, her memoir of recovery from a five-year relationship with her 8th grade English teacher, was rejected by predominantly white mainstream publishers before — and after — its publication by a small press with none of the support and fanfare lavished on Russell's book.
My Dark Vanessa has clearly been worked and reworked to a fare-thee-well, but sometimes feels crafted to a fault. It's too long, and suffers from some serious overwriting, mostly involving Vanessa's attempts to describe her out-of-body sense of alienation at each of Shane's trespasses: "I'm inhuman now. Untethered ... I soar, trailing a maple-red comet tail. I'm no longer myself; I am no one. I'm a red balloon caught in the boughs of a tree. I'm nothing at all."
You get the (ahem) drift. Even so, this upsetting novel, which powerfully unpacks so much about the trauma of abuse, victimhood, silencing, misplaced guilt, power, consent, and wayward desire, is a significant addition to the necessary reassessments and conversations sparked by the #MeToo movement.