TW: Grooming, pedophilia, child abuse, sexual assault, teacher-student relationship.
I first learned about this book after seeing a woman on the train reading it. The cover of this book drew me in and I borrowed it from the library a week later. I did not know what I was getting myself into.
This book introduces us to titular protagonist, Vanessa; a young woman reeling in the blowback of her high school English teacher’s recent suicide after allegations of sexual abuse come out against him in the wake of #metoo. Vanessa was 15 years old when she first meets 32 year old Jacob Strane at a prestigious New England private school. Strane instantly takes a liking to Vanessa, as she is one of his students. A loner who is attending the school on a full scholarship, Strane zeroes in on her and develops a relationship of grooming turned physical as he begins a sexual relationship with Vanessa before her 16th birthday.
Adult Vanessa cannot let herself believe that what happened between her and Strane was anything other than a consensual relationship. Even as other victims and reporters reach out to her not only for comment, but also support against Strane, as it was an open secret in their school that the two were engaged in an indecent relationship, Vanessa does not let up. Moments of clarity appear here and there, with Vanessa questioning what could have been of her life had she never met Strane. What was once a promising academic career were torn apart by his manipulation and eventual rejection of her. When he is unable to perform, as he is no longer attracted to an older Vanessa, it all but breaks her. She realizes, in some way, that she no longer suits his sick needs.
Russell doesn’t hold back in her writing. She is very detailed in expressing not only the pain and anguish Vanessa is dealing with, but also the level of loyalty she feels towards Strane as more victims emerge. She cannot believe he is the monster they are making him out to be. Russell makes it clear that victims of childhood sexual assault internalize trauma differently, and don’t always understand, or can bring themselves to understand, that what happened to them was not their fault. I will say that more than once I had to put down this book as the sexual encounters between Strane and Vanessa were very detailed and often left me feeling ill. That’s not a knock against the writing – Russell got her point across. This behavior from an adult to a child should make everyone sick and angry at the perpetrator, not the victim. It took me longer than normal to finish this book, just because of the nature of the content, but I think it’s nonetheless an important topic to be covered.