My Dark Vanessa
“A hard story to read and a harder one to put down . . . a well-constructed package of dynamite.” — Stephen King
Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.
2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.
2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager — and who professed to worship only her — may be far different from what she has always believed?
Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of Room, My Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.
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I have the feeling you get at the end of some books, when you know the next one won’t be as good...it's a hard story to read and an even harder one to put down…a well-constructed package of dynamite.
Riveting and compulsive, My Dark Vanessa unsettles with every sentence. A novel that asks urgent questions and refuses easy answers.
My Dark Vanessa is a provocative and disturbing exploration of what happens when manipulation feels like love. It’s Lolita subverted for a post #MeToo world; interrogating the myth of the teenage temptress with a razor sharp intelligence. Russell is interested in neither easy questions nor easy answers, demanding the reader unpack the intersection of power, abuse, and trauma, no matter how uncomfortable it may make us. More than anything else, Russell pushes us to reconsider everything we believe about what a “perfect” victim looks like. Challenging and uncompromising, My Dark Vanessa is the book everyone will be talking about in 2020.
Author of Almost Love and Asking For It
My Dark Vanessa destroyed me. This moving, ferocious story of an all-consuming relationship between a teenager and her teacher traces not just a stolen girlhood, but the aftershocks that haunt trauma survivors years into the future. Gripping, stunningly written, and important —I’ve been waiting for this book.
Author of Marlena
Rich, dramatic, and emotionally involving.Books to Anticipate
Russell's debut is a rich psychological study of the aftermath of abuse, and her novel asks readers both to take Vanessa's assertions of agency at face value and to determine the real, psychological harm perpetrated against her by an abusive adult. What emerges is a devastating cultural portrait of enablement and the harm we allow young women to shoulder. "The excuses we make for them are outrageous," Vanessa concludes about abusive men, "but they're nothing compared with the ones we make for ourselves."A gut-wrenching debut.
A deeply relevant debut that the author has been writing since age 16, drawing on her own experiences, and the reading enlightens even as it chills.
Russell’s novel, alternating between past and present, presents a damning indictment of sexual predation, as she starkly elucidates the ways in which abuse robbed Vanessa not only of her childhood but also of her own once-promising future. It also prompts readers to interrogate their own assumptions about victimhood, consent, and agency. This is a frighteningly sharp debut.
Who is to say who is a victim? My Dark Vanessa explores the sexually-charged shadow world between desire and interruption, girlhood and womanhood, coersion and complicity. Breathtakingly suspenseful, like downing a flaming drink without blowing it out.
Author of The Revolution of Marina M., Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, and White Oleander
A truly remarkable debut, deeply thoughtful, deeply emotional, compelling and disturbing in equal measure. I raced to the ending and then found the book lingered with me long after that last page. It is lingering still.
New York Times bestselling author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
One of the debut novels of 2020…it is a strikingly well-written literary novel which grapples with issues of consent and coercion.
My Dark Vanessa is a total masterpiece of tone and point of view, even more impressive for how uninvested it seems in impressing us. It's fascinating and devastating and brilliant. I loved it.
Author of You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Stories
My Dark Vanessa...might be the first true #MeToo-era novel to come out over these last few years.
Real Simple's Most Anticipated Books of 2020
What makes the novel exceptional is Russell's insights into both the lies Vanessa tells herself and the lies that the teacher, Strane, tells himself. Strane is, to this extent, sympathetic, but hateful too — a balance that good fiction can achieve, but that so often leads to misreadings.
Empathetic, incendiary, and discussable.
My Dark Vanessa is an unsettling and thought-provoking marvel. I was captivated by the brutal honesty of the emotion and the stark beauty of the writing. This one will stay with me forever.
Author of Summer of '69
My Dark Vanessa is a harrowing triumph. Complex, smart, and utterly riveting from start to finish, Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel cracks open assumptions and clichés, and delivers a layered, nuanced narrative that is vital for a more thorough understanding of the extent and longevity of the damage wrought by sexual abuse. Be prepared for a pit in your stomach, a lump in your throat, and reading late into the night.
Author of Euphoria
You'll rant. You'll rage. You'll use the red-with-anger-and-cussing emoji one too many times while talking with your friends about the relationship at the center of this book...
The 20 Must-Read Books of 2020, Bustle
This isn't your cliché trope about a high school student-teacher relationship. Kate Elizabeth Russell brings forth all of the emotion and complexity when Vanessa discovers almost two decades later that her first love has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student.
Marie Claire, 'The 2020 Books You Should Pre-Order Now'
A brilliant and stunning debut, My Dark Vanessa is utterly truth-rattling, humane in its clarity and chilling in its resonance. An absolute must read.
Author of Gone Girl
At the heart of this explosive and provocative debut is the relationship between a 15-year-old girl and her 42-year-old teacher. Flash forward 17 years to when the teacher is accused of sexual assault, and a now-adult Vanessa must contend with her past, in what is a timely tale.
Newsweek's 'The 20 Most-Anticipated Books of 2020'
My Dark Vanessa is a singular achievement — a masterpiece of tension and tone that will simultaneously grip you, horrify you, and move you. With utmost sensitivity and vivid, gut-churning detail, Russell illuminates Vanessa’s struggle to see the story of her life for the tragedy it truly is. Before you start My Dark Vanessa, clear your schedule for the next few days — this harrowing account of sexual abuse and its lifelong aftershocks will utterly consume you.
Superb… more than merely an inversion of Lolita for the #MeToo generation; this is a book that asks what we have lost and gained in an era that has revolutionised the way we think about sex and power.
Nuanced, urgent and addictively disturbing.
To call this book a Lolita for the #MeToo era would be too easy, yet there are long and graceful shadows of Nabokov’s infamous book throughout this elegant novel about a student-teacher affair at a prestigious East Coast boarding school. Everyone who reads My Dark Vanessa will have an opinion on this book, thanks to the unblinking way it handles issues like consent and sexual politics, but it’s Kate Elizabeth Russell’s deft use of language and perspective that really make this novel a must-read.
Leaves you thinking long after the last page.
A powerful and nuanced take on the emotional complexity of consent and manipulation, My Dark Vanessa is a gripping debut by Kate Elizabeth Russell, and goes to the centre of this age’s discourse surrounding power dynamics and abuse.
Lyrical and propulsive… bold and unexpected.
Once begun, the novel is almost impossible to put down [...] The book is, at all times, utterly fascinating because Russell has ensnared us so deeply inside Vanessa’s psyche.
Wellesley Centers for Women
This book lives up to its name and is extremely relevant to the issues of today.
This shattering novel effectively echoes the complexities of abuse far too many young women endure.
Compulsive, complicated, and timely, Russell’s debut explores ideas of memory, trauma, abuse, and complicity.
[An] electrifying debut [...] his is not a story about one bad man and a girl he harmed, but rather an entire system that perpetuates these damaging cycles because of whose perspective must be privileged in order for the whole structure to remain standing.
Thought-provoking, beautifully written and deeply unsettling.
The buzz it’s getting is already ferociously loud, so watch out for it.
Certain to be one of the year’s most talked-about books, this addictive story of a relationship between a teacher and a pupil at a US boarding school in the 90s and its repercussions in the present day pulls no punches.
A complex and captivating dissection of abuse, power and sexuality.i-D MAGAZINE
As Lisa Taddeo's Three Women did last year, this debut novel is sure to ignite conversations about consent, psychological abuse and the power dynamics of sex and love between men and women…uncomfortable yet important reading.
Destined to spark many a heated book club debate, My Dark Vanessa raises vital questions about agency and consent.
The reader is able to see heartbreaking truths that Vanessa can’t yet bear to look at, and this conflict is utterly gripping...If there is a reading list for the #MeToo era, My Dark Vanessa deserves to be at the top of it.
Chilling, addictive… My Dark Vanessa is a compelling read, sure to spur endless discussions.
Perhaps the most anticipated first novel of the year, Russell's riveting, timeline-shifting saga of the relationship between a high school student and her teacher, and its #MeToo-tinged fallout, is sure to spark conversation
Ultimately, what makes My Dark Vanessa so hypnotic is that it provides Vanessa with what so many abused women want — the chance to admit that they have desires too. Readers might hate her for what they see as her complicity, her refusal to take up the mantle of victimhood in a way they can easily sloganize. I don’t think she’d care.
Los Angeles Times
This timely, riveting debut illuminates the interplay between a child’s heartbreaking confusion and the deepest perversions of power.
It is difficult to write about this subject without falling into predictable tropes or clichés, but Russell manages a brutal originality. In an era of neat furious accounts of victimhood, this novel stands out for elusiveness, its exceedingly complex, inventive, resourceful examination of harm and power.
The New York Times Book Review
To call this book a “conversation piece” or “an important book” feels belittling, something reserved for female authors writing about the female experience. But this book is so much more than that. It’s a lightning rod. A brilliantly crafted novel, one that will stand against any of the celebrated tomes glorifying the over-sexualization of girls.
The Washington Post
An extremely buzzy debut novel about an affair between a teacher and a student—and the fallout that comes down the line.
Like many of us living in a post-#MeToo world, I've spent the past few years reading about the power abuses committed by bad men. But I've never read anything quite like Kate Elizabeth Russell's portrait of Vanessa Wye [...] It's a thoroughly original exploration of those who eschew the label of 'survivor'
My Dark Vanessa has extraordinary ambitions [...] this is among the best crime fiction to emerge
We couldn’t stop thinking about Kate Elizabeth Russell’s powerful and deeply disturbing debut [...] A palpable feeling of unease pervades Russell’s novel—she does an amazing job of trapping us inside Vanessa’s claustrophobic, traumatized mind. A vitally important read for the #MeToo age, My Dark Vanessa combines visceral detail with thoughtful nuance. Your book club will spend hours discussing this one.
Both compelling and heartbreaking with dark moments that so many women will recognise from their own lives. From the deliberate, subtle breaking of student-teacher boundaries to the lies people tell themselves in order to survive, this is a dense, layered exploration of abuse that’s essential reading for all.
...as powerful as it is painful, and deserves its reputation as one of the defining books of the #MeToo era.
Gripping…a critical and timeless examination of the ways that the sexuality of young women can be dismissed, exploited or demonized.
Once in awhile, a book comes along that consumes your waking hours, unmoors you from your lived reality, grips the very core of you and doesn’t let go. My Dark Vanessa is that book.
Powerful… Masterfully complicates our ideas about victimhood.
Immersive… one of the most compelling, disturbing, and complex reads this year.
A carefully and masterfully crafted piece of fiction, an early-aughts time capsule, and a focused practice in perspective… An impressive debut from an author who will no doubt continue to prove her talent.
Your beliefs will be challenged, you will feel helpless, angry and possibly a little depraved, but it will make you feel. A rarity these days. You’ll want to make sure to carve out enough time before starting, because My Dark Vanessa is compulsive. I burned through the first half of the book in such a fever that I lost sleep, I missed meals… Would be unbearable in less capable hands, but Russell manages to weave beautiful prose with gut-wrenching truth so deftly that even the most squeamish reader will not be able to stop themselves from wading into deeper water. The genius of this book is what’s left unsaid, the deceptively simple nuance with which this difficult material is handled… It’s a lightning rod. A brilliantly crafted novel.
My Dark Vanessa succeeds—and is a triumph—because its aim is to illuminate one woman’s experience of sexual abuse in all of its emotional nuance and complexity… Almost impossible to put down… This is a landscape I’ve never seen fully rendered in literature before—an essential, still largely misunderstood aspect of human experience that comes to blazing life in Russell’s hands and, frankly, serves as a potent singlehanded response to anyone who questions the relevance of fiction in today’s reality-obsessed society… Russell’s done something new here.
Exquisite… Stands on its own as simultaneously specific and universal – about a young woman who believes she’s in a love story when she’s actually in a psychological horror film… My Dark Vanessa anatomizes most sharply the rip in time that keeps women replaying and relitigating their own culpability in their assaults, especially when those violations happen behind the walls of an institution that vows to protect them… Hypnotic.
A gripping tale of love and manipulation.
A nuanced analysis of trauma, power, and obsession that's, at times, hard to read; more often, it's hard to put down.
The book presents a timely psychological journey that is difficult to reduce; Vanessa’s intimate thoughts and perceptions extend the complexity of this discussion.
Russell’s novel My Dark Vanessa could not be more timely
Gripping and unsettling… a bracingly uncompromising book. It will doubtless be devoured with an ache of recognition by large numbers of women. But it really ought to be read by men
Instantly provocative… one of the splashier literary debuts of the year… [Vanessa’s account] flips disconcertingly between the rote patter of a cult victim and flashes of acute insight… My Dark Vanessa is a minefield in which language itself has been weaponized. Vanessa is both a smothering presence and a troubling void, a narrator who often feels disassociated from her own story.
Absolutely gripping...a brilliant depiction of how grooming feels from the inside...a darkly compelling story.
Chilling, addictive…My Dark Vanessa is a compelling read, sure to spur endless discussions.
If we were allowed on public transport right now, this is the book every woman would be reading… Exploring consent, power shifts and teenage sexuality in the #MeToo era, it’s a deeply affecting work that turns the Lolita trope on its head.
This is a very good book. Probing, uncomfortably complex, and by turns angering and exasperating, it is very much a story for these times.