My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell: A review

In Kate Elizabeth Russell's debut novel, My Dark Vanessa, she knocks it out of the park in so many ways. The book is a clever telling of a Lolita-like story. In this case, the girl is Vanessa Wye, a naive, yet precocious, fifteen-year-old student at a boarding school in Maine. The role of Humbert is played by her magnetic and manipulative forty-two-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane. The action kicks off in 2000 when Vanessa is a sophomore at the school.

Vanessa is lonely and friendless. Her former best friend and roommate from the previous year and Vanessa had fallen out over the friend's relationship with a boy. Vanessa felt isolated by the relationship and had reacted badly. Now the two are not on speaking terms and Vanessa has not found anyone to fill that void. The predator, Jacob, recognizes her isolation and "cuts her from the herd," so to speak.

Jacob begins by telling her how special she is, how intelligent and talented. Vanessa writes poetry and her teacher is effusive in his praise of her. He gives her special attention in his class and calls her up to sit by him at his desk while he goes over her work with her. And surreptitiously, while all the other students are bent over their own work and oblivious to the teacher, he reaches out and touches her knee...

Things proceed from there. She lingers after class. She follows him into his office. He turns off the lights. He kisses her.

Jacob gives her his underlined, annotated copy of Lolita to read and she becomes obsessed with it. He gives her Sylvia Plath. He shows her lines in Nabokov's Pale Fire that say "Come and be worshiped, come and be caressed/My dark Vanessa." 

Vanessa rewrites the story of this relationship in her head, making it a love story, and all the while the reader wants to scream at her, "He's grooming you, you ninny!" 

Vanessa tells herself, "At least I knew how it felt to be worshiped. He fell at my feet even before he kissed me." And again she accepts his narrative, saying, "He was careful with me. He tried so hard to be good." She feels powerful: "I feel forced over a threshold, thrust out of my ordinary life into a place where it's possible for grown men to be so pathetically in love with me they fall at my feet."

The affair is in full swing in 2001 and the pair delude themselves - at least Vanessa deludes herself - that no one knows, no one notices. In fact, of course, all the other students in the English class know by now and rumors rage throughout the school. Vanessa's former best friend even tries to talk to her to warn her, but Vanessa isn't listening. Finally, the administration of the school hears those rumors and "investigates" mostly by talking to Jacob. And who is punished? Who suffers the consequences? Why, Vanessa, of course! She is kicked out of school, while Jacob continues his teaching career and is free to abuse again.

Vanessa transfers to a public school in her hometown, but the rumors follow her there. Meanwhile, her parents struggle to protect her and give her a normal life.

But the story doesn't end there. In fact, the affair continues. The two manage to meet up on an irregular basis and through the years Vanessa continues to be in thrall to this man and her life which once held such promise is a mess.

Finally, in 2017, Vanessa is thirty-two, still alone, still deluding herself with her great "love story" and still seeing Jacob. Then another female student of his dares to speak out. She, too, has been abused and she reaches out to Vanessa because she knows the stories about her. Vanessa is still in denial. She doesn't believe the girl's story and she still believes that she was different, unique. She can't accept the idea that Jacob Strane has been a teacher at that school for more than thirty years and has most likely been a serial abuser during that time.

This is a very well-written and an extremely disturbing book. The account of this weird relationship is creepy but it is thoroughly believable. Being acquainted with the overwrought imagination of teenage girls, I can fully understand how Vanessa was duped and fell under the sway of this odious man. Even to the end, she refuses to give up on the idea of a love story:
Driven toward it, toward him, I was the kind of girl that isn't supposed to exist: one eager to hurl herself into the path of a pedophile. But no, that word isn't right, never has been. It's a cop-out, a lie in the way it's wrong to call me a victim and nothing more. He was never so simple; neither was I.
And neither is this story. But it is propulsive and hard to put down, a memorable debut for Russell.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



  1. This sounds very good. It is interesting that it covers so many years. I think that might differentiate it from other such stories. I also think that such things do sometimes go on for many years so I think that aspect is realistic.

    1. The writer's depiction of the relationship seemed realistic to me. I believe she had done a good bit of research about such situations. I didn't mention in the review - and perhaps I should have - that at the end Vanessa was seeing a therapist and was finally talking about what had happened, so one had the sense that there was some hope for her.

  2. I sometimes think I should make a list of the books you review, Dorothy, and then I look at the stack waiting to be read - thirty three by last count, and that idea rapidly goes out the window! Now if only all this biology crap didn't keep getting in the way of novels!

    1. Well, that "biology crap" can be pretty engrossing and dramatic, too!

  3. Kudos to you for reading this book. I don't know if I can. But I did enjoy your review.

    1. It is dark and disturbing but extremely well written. I can understand why any woman might want to give it a pass.

  4. Like Judy, I'm sort of on the fence about this one. Maybe it would bother me too much. I'm glad to hear you thought it was worth it.

    1. One reads it in a state of anger and frustration and yet Russell has fairly depicted (I think) the thought processes of many girls and women who fall victim to these kinds of situations, especially their insistence that they are equal or even superior partners in the relationship - that they are NOT victims! It was very much a worthwhile read even if only for better understanding that dynamic.


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