leaving behind fingerprints | my dark vanessa by kate elizabeth russell

by - 2:10 PM

"The excuses we make for them are outrageous, but they’re nothing compared to the ones we make for ourselves."

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. 

isbn: 978-0062941503 | pages: 384
publication date: March 10, 2020 | source: library/ebook
genre: literary fiction
trigger warning: sexual assault, manipulation/gaslighting, rape, suicide, mental illness 
(that's just to name a few)
so this review has been sitting in my drafts for more than two weeks and I can't seem to fit my thoughts into my standard review format. however, I still want to share my thoughts so please prepare for a somewhat messy conglomeration of my emotions:

things I appreciated
🙂The story gave a voice to the victims - we often hear about the women and men who are fighting to bring their stories to the surface, but it's given that there are countless others who aren't able to voice the trauma that they have experienced. Granted, Vanessa didn't believe that she was a victim for the majority of the story, but that just highlights how incredibly manipulated she was that she believed the relationship was consensual. As painful as it was to read, I enjoyed following her psychological process as she defines herself and accepts her emotional scars are badges of her victory.

things I hated
😠Strane - he DISGUSTS me. As someone who's graduating college with an education major, this was wrong on so many levels. The whole teacher-student relationship dynamic is a trope that I will never be able to understand. I find it ethically immoral to fantasize about one's students and just professionally unacceptable to cross that line. Strane is a predator and a pedophile and I hate him.

😠The double standards - This might be a mild spoiler but essentially, Vanessa goes off to college and catches the attention of one of her English professors. It's kind of the same spiel as with Strane, she stands out for her analytical and "dark passion" for literature and becomes conflicted with all the attention Henry (the professor) is giving her. She ends up discovering that he is currently married to one of his former students who ironically works as a counselor at Strane's school. 

I feel like this particular component of the story ended up being more damaging for Vanessa because she's been mentally scarred by her relationship with Strane and finding out a student-teacher relationship that worked was not helpful. Henry himself also presented more confusion because he seemed unsure about his feelings for Vanessa and condemned Strane, but his relationship with his former student was somehow different? I don't know, it could be since we don't get the full backstory, but this element of the story just seemed irrelevant and frustrating.

things I learned
🧐Telling the truth is never easy - This is a given, obviously, but reading Vanessa's view of the ongoing trial against Strane felt more personal. Vanessa constantly tracks the news of Strane's trial through Taylor's (the student accusing him) social media and her changing perspective of the narrative changes as the story develops. While this made me lose a bunch of faith and respect for humanity, I appreciated the very blunt portrayal the #MeToo movement from the perspective of someone who is silent.

🧐One sentence, two meanings - the amount of gaslighting and manipulations infuriated me. I highlighted so many passages of moments where the only comment I could provide was 🤬🤬🤬. Strane is incredibly talented at twisting his words to make himself seem like the victim and isn't afraid to go between painting Vanessa as his savior to condemning her for his actions. His words give a glimpse at how damaging and cruel his character really is and also how common it is to use words to mentally hurt someone else. 

🧐Healing is personal and has no time limit - The crux of this story is about Vanessa and you don't have to love her character to value her journey. This book has definitely made an impact on me and allowed me to develop a better insight into how important the #MeToo movement is. I stated this before, but this book was so difficult to read, but at the end I'm really glad that I read it. 

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  1. riv, this is such a great review! <3
    i've been seeing this book all over goodreads, and to be honest, i'm afraid of reading it because of how difficult and dark the subject matter seems. however, this does seem like a very important story about the #metoomovement, and after you mentioned what you've learned after reading the book, i really hope to give it a try myself.

    1. Aww thank you for your kind words! It's definitely difficult, there were moments where I would pick up the book but only be able to read a couple of pages before needing to put it down - in the end it is worth it. I would definitely recommend buddy-reading it, I think it would be really helpful to bounce thoughts around while reading. If you get to reading this, please let me know what you think!! :)