In the Book World:
My Dark Vanessa has its own controversy when it comes to six and seven figure book deals, immediately following on the heals of the American Dirt conversations. This highly anticipated novel, written by Kate Elizabeth Russell and out next month, is a fictional story of a young high school girl and her questionable relationship with a male teacher, loosely based on the author’s own experiences. Latinx author, Wendy C. Ortiz says her memoir, Excavation is eerily similar to this novel, yet she did not get a six figure advance or the publicity. With inequalities Latinx authors feel they are facing, folks are speaking out and the publishing industry is taking note. Stay tuned to see how this has an impact on book deals moving forward.
My Dark Vanessa is a chilling, addictive psychological thriller sure to keep you engaged.
It begins with 15 year old Vanessa, a bright high school student with low self esteem and typical teenage insecurities, attends boarding school. Feeling anxious and alone, she throws herself into reading and writing poetry, yet she continues to struggle.
Jacob Strane, a charming 42 year old literature teacher at the school, sees her vulnerability, gives her confidence by complimenting her and attempts to make a connection. They bond over the written word, begin spending a lot of time together, and their trusting friendship goes from being tantalizing to sexual. Vanessa grapples with her own power and sexuality during this coming of age affair as she feels excited for these physical and emotional milestones that indicate love. This forbidden relationship with Mr. Strane often seems romantic and other times, she questions it.
“He touched me first. Said he wanted to kiss me. Told me he loved me. Every first step was taken by him. I don’t feel forced, and I know I have the power to say no, but that isn’t the same as being in charge.”
She is exhilarated and fantasizes about her teacher, yet her naiveté holds her back and she relies on him to lead the way.
“There the fantasy fizzles out, because what we do after that depends on what he wants, and I have no idea what he wants.”
In the present time, Vanessa, an adult now in her early thirties, is single and working a menial job at a hotel. She learns of a student at her old boarding school who has charged Jacob Strane with sexual abuse. Vanessa has remained in touch with Strane and she still feels connected to him. Their relationship has framed her life, and she defends him, as she reckons with her feelings for what she believes was genuine love. Yet, in the current environment of examining the actions of men in power, she begins to question his behaviors – toward the accuser, and then toward her young self many years ago.
“The difference between rape and sex is state of mind. You can’t rape the willing, right?”
What is the truth? Her memories of the past are unclear. Was she a willing participant? Can she negate this life defining affair she had with Jacob Strane, and label it as abuse after all these years? Did she consent? Was she complicit? Or was their relationship illegal and immoral?
The results of sexual abuse are vast and long lasting. Stories about teachers exerting power and influence over students, using manipulation to create situations, and students being thrilled with the attentions of these adult figures who provide guidance and approvals is not new. In the recent past, Kate Walbert writes about it in His Favorites and Susan Choi in Trust Exercise. And when it comes to sexuality as an expression of power and control, even in consensual and legitimate relationships, Lisa Taddeo explores this angle of women and sexuality in Three Women.
In My Dark Vanessa, we follow a young, naive student down the rabbit hole of approval and acceptance and what she thinks is something like love. As an adult looking back, in today’s #MeToo environment, Vanessa has second thoughts about her high school teacher and his manipulative advances toward young girls, calling into question so much of who she has become as a sexual being, a woman and a human. Consent, complicity or coercion…how do we talk about these kinds of relationships and who do we hold responsible? A compelling read, sure to spur endless discussion, I highly recommend this powerful novel.
About the Author:
Kate Elizabeth Russell was born and raised in eastern Maine. She holds an MFA from Indiana University and a PhD from the University of Kansas. My Dark Vanessa is her first novel.