My Dark Vanessa is a complicated and controversial book- it is akin to a modern retelling of Lolita from Lolita’s perspective. Oprah picked it for her book club (cbr12bingo!) and then dropped it when controversy arose- after American Dirt she maybe wasn’t keen for another controversial book so soon (FYI: the controversy was due to allegations that Russell had stolen the real life story of a Latina woman- since disproved via Russell disclosing her own childhood abuse).
The story is a first person narrative that flips back and forth in time. We are first introduced to Vanessa in 2017 when she is a troubled 31 year old woman: she is working a low-skill job as a hotel concierge, smoking a lot of weed, drinking a lot of alcohol, engaging in destructive one night stands. We start to understand some of the reasons for her dysfunction when she receives a call from her first lover, Jacob Strane. Strane is roughly 30 years her senior and was her high school English teacher. He is calling because he is worried about recent allegations from a female student, and he wants Vanessa to both reassure him that their relationship was consensual and- equally importantly to him- reiterate that she isn’t planning on becoming one of his accusers. We then flip back to 2001, where we meet 15 year old Vanessa, awkward and newly friendless at a boarding school full of kids from a higher tax bracket. We watch as Strane slowly grooms Vanessa- small compliments, touching her knee, giving her increasingly disturbing reading material (ie: Lolita), making her feel special. Russell shows us how easy it can be for such grooming to occur, and the complicated mental cartwheels that Vanessa goes through to try and maintain the idea that it was a ‘love story’ as opposed to abuse.
My experience reading this book felt as complicated as the book is- it kept me hooked (I tore through it in about 3 days) but it wasn’t an easy read and at times made me deeply uncomfortable. That said, I think it is valuable reading- both as a precaution to better recognize the signs of grooming and how insidious it is, as well as to have sympathy for ‘imperfect’ victims.