I have grappled for days on how to start this review. My Dark Vanessa is such a polarizing book and I cannot figure out another way to describe it. As I read, I felt both drawn to the beautiful writing while also disgusted with the subject matter. I don’t like that I liked it. Does that even make sense?? For those of you who have read My Dark Vanessa or Lolita, I feel like you will understand me. This book is not for everyone and it is one of those that you will either love or hate. A book about a 42-year-old teacher’s sexual relationship with is 15-year-old student is not something that is easy to stomach, let alone read about, but the topics of consent, manipulation, gas lighting, sexual abuse, mental health, and the media’s treatment of young women make it such an important and timely read.
Britney Spears, Fiona Apple, the Olsen twins. What do they have in common? Their sexuality was used to promote them and their “youthful” looks were the primary focus of their promotion in the media. I remember when there was a “countdown” for Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen to turn eighteen. Being a young, teenage girl myself, I remember the powerful feeling that came with grabbing the attention of an older boy or man. I remember being sixteen years old and working at a local grocery store and restaurant where grown men felt they had the right to say derogatory things to me and touch me without my consent. I remember receiving a love letter while at work,
from a customer who had to be at least 20 years older than me. I also remember seducing a man 15 years my senior, only to throw him away when I got my grasp on him. As a young girl, I brushed it off. Boys, they never grow up. Isn’t that what they say? My Dark Vanessa touches on how the media and our culture shapes, influences, and blurs the lines on what consent looks like, what constitutes abuse, and what a victim is.
Vanessa noticed Strane from her first day at her new boarding school. She took an interest in him and Strane took advantage of this. He began grooming her with subtle hints and gestures that started to bend the line between appropriate and inappropriate. He slowly increased his tactic with Vanessa as he gained her trust and the path leading there is revolting and will turn your stomach. Vanessa romanticized the abuse and thought of Strane as a lover and grew dependent on him. She was so blind from manipulation and too young to understand the enormity of what was happening to her. Strane took advantage of every ounce of Vanessa's innocence and stole her childhood from her. Well after their relationship ends with a horrible fall out, Vanessa cannot let go of Strane and the hold he had over her. Told from her perspective, the reader gets a front row view of the affect the abuse has had on Vanessa. It is heart wrenching and made me livid. The psychological toll the abuse took on Vanessa is eye opening.
I really liked this one and I am almost ashamed to admit it. Hearing the story through Vanessa gives the reader such a vivid perspective of abuse victims and the inner turmoil they feel trying to justify their memories so that they can simple live with them. It was incredibly troubling to hear Vanessa’s thoughts and part of me wanted to throw the book at the wall because I was so frustrated. But it was also real, raw, and honest. Surviving abuse is not black and white. There is not a “right” way to heal from it and what works for one person, might not work for the next. This was incredibly evident in the way Vanessa and another former student dealt with the abuse.
Like I said, this book is not for everyone. While I could not put it down, it was also incredibly difficult to read. The depths of depravity it takes for someone like Strane to justify what they do is beyond comprehension. I have never had such a visceral reaction from reading a book. This one is hard for me to rate on the five-star scale, but I think it is one worth reading and formulating your own opinion about.
Important to note:
There was controversy around My Dark Vanessa when it was being marketed and published. Excavation, is a memoir written by Wendy Ortiz and focuses on the true story of her illicit relationship with a teacher 15 years her senior. Vanessa’s story closely mirrors Wendy's and it was brought to light the amount of publicity and revenue My Dark Vanessa was given, when compared to the true story of Excavation, which is written by an author of color. I recognize this and do not want to diminish either of these authors stories. Because of that, I plan on reading Excavation so that I can formulate my own judgement and give each author the respect they deserve.
If you are interested in reading more about this, click on the article link below.