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My Dark Vanessa
GENRE: Contemporary Fiction
Described as the Lolita for the #MeToo era. Vanessa is only 15 when she enters into a relationship with her much older teacher. Years later, when another student comes forward with sexual assault allegations, Vanessa must reexamine her past and decide whether she should stay silent or speak out. Alternating between past and present, this debut novel examines agency, consent, and complicity.
Kate Elizabeth Russell is originally from eastern Maine. She holds a PhD in creative writing from the University of Kansas and an MFA from Indiana University. My Dark Vanessa is her first novel. - HarperCollins
/* Starred Review */ The #MeToo movement forces a struggling young woman to confront the abusive relationship that defines her sexual and romantic past.At 15, Vanessa Wye falls for her English teacher at Browick, a private boarding school. Jacob Strane is 42, "big, broad, and so tall that his shoulders hunch as though his body wants to apologize for taking up so much space." Strane woos Vanessa with Nabokov's novels, Plath's poetry, and furtive caresses in his back office. "I think we're very similar, Nessa," Strane tells her during a one-on-one conference. "I can tell from the way you write that you're a dark romantic like me." Soon, Vanessa is reveling in her newfound power of attraction, pursuing sleepovers at Strane's house, and conducting what she feels is a secret affair right under the noses of the administration. More than 15 years later, at the height of the #MeToo movement, Taylor Birch, another young woman from Browick, publicly accuses Strane of sexual abuse. When a young journalist reaches out to Vanessa to corroborate Taylor's story, Vanessa's world begins to unravel. "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 me and all the times I wanted it, begged for it," Vanessa tells herself. Russell weaves Vanessa's memories of high school together with the social media-saturated callout culture of the present moment, as Vanessa struggles to determine whether the love story she has told about herself is, in fact, a tragedy of unthinkable proportions. 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. (Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2019).
/* Starred Review */ DEBUT At age 15, Vanessa had a relationship with her 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane, who claims to love her for her emotional intelligence and creative writing abilities. At least that's what she tells us nearly two decades later, when another student has called out Strane for their sexual activity and starts a social media firestorm. It also starts Vanessa thinking. She had always believed that she and Strane shared true love and defends him now against this student's so-called lies, but what really happened? Vanessa must decide whether she was a victim or willing participant, which of course raises the question of how willing you can be at age 15 in an unequal power relationship. As Vanessa slowly unpacks what happened, we see her youthful and ongoing denial, the impact of events on her still unsure self, how sedulous Strane was in drawing her in, how unabashed he remains, how much she needed and still needs to believe they had something special, and how she still takes Strane as a measure. VERDICT 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. [See Prepub Alert, 7/1/19.] --Donna Bettencourt (Reviewed 09/01/2019) (Library Journal, vol 144, issue 8, p69).
In the year 2000, high-school sophomore Vanessa returns to her Maine boarding school, Browick, still deflated from last year's falling-out with her best friend. Encouraged to pick up an extracurricular activity, she joins the creative-writing club helmed by her English teacher, Mr. Strane. Soon he is just Strane, a fortysomething man who compliments her poems and the color of her hair, introduces her to Lolita and Poe's ""Annabel Lee,"" and touches her knee when no one's looking. She falls for him, hard. In the other time line in Russell's debut, it's 2017, Vanessa is working in a hotel, and a younger Browick alum has just publicly accused Strane of sexual misconduct while she was a student. A bomb dropped halfway through the novel impacts both story lines significantly. Narrating in present tense, Vanessa is easy to sympathize with, and her story is hard to stop reading. On another level, Russell realistically portrays how this sort of thing could happen—Strane's diabolical manipulation, Vanessa's confused love—even as Vanessa can't see it or understand how it hurts her. Empathetic, incendiary, and discussable. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: With dozens of international rights sold and a massive publicity campaign, this is being touted as a defining novel of the #MeToo era. -- Annie Bostrom (Reviewed 11/1/2019) (Booklist, vol 116, number 5, p36).
/* Starred Review */ Russell offers readers an introspective narrative that fully captures the complexity and necessity of the #MeToo movement in her powerful debut. In the year 2000, Vanessa Wye is a lonely sophomore at Maine’s Browick boarding school. The academically gifted 15-year-old professes not to mind her solitude, especially when her 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane, begins to pay attention to her, remarking on her red hair and fashion sense, and lending her some of his favorite books—including Nabokov’s Lolita. Almost before Vanessa realizes what’s happening, the two have embarked on a sexual relationship, and Vanessa is convinced she’s been singled out as someone truly special—until, under threat of exposure, their relationship begins to go off the rails. Seventeen years later, Vanessa is still occasionally in contact with Jacob, but their relationship has grown tense, as another former student has gone public about his inappropriate advances. 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. Agent: Hillary Jacobson, ICM Partners. (Jan.) --Staff (Reviewed 09/16/2019) (Publishers Weekly, vol 266, issue 37, p).
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