“People will risk everything for a little bit of something beautiful”
First thing’s first: My Dark Vanessa is extremely well written. But it is not an easy or comforting read. If you are at all triggered by sexual misconduct, manipulation, or statutory rape, be warned. Though, to tack onto that– the author’s treatment of the subject here may actually open the door for difficult conversations, allowing victims to relate and feel understood and heard without judgment.
This book has been on my radar for quite some time, as I had requested to review an advanced copy (but was denied). Since I’ve got so many other approvals– and, because, let’s be real, I’m often quite bitter when I’m rejected– I rarely go back and read books where I’ve not gotten an ARC. However, this one really stood out to me because the teacher and willing student relationship is a situation about which I’ve always wanted to write a novel myself.
Having been in the position where lines have been crossed with older, more authoritative figures, I understand the complex relationships and feelings, both positive and negative, that can develop. Russell does an impeccable job conveying the convoluted dynamics– so much so, that she had to add at the beginning a disclaimer that the story was in no way borne of nonfictional events that occurred to her. The success of the book is largely due to its reading like a memoir rather than a fictional character study. I agree with other reviews which have found problems with its length, as it easily could’ve been half the length and been as effective, if not more so. However, the strength of Russell’s writing– her weaving of poetry and classical literature into the narrative, so that it isn’t gratuitous or derivative, but rather an integral and enriching part of the story.
“Your life is like a movie. She didn’t understand the horror of watching your body star in something your mind didn’t agree to. She meant it as a compliment. Isn’t that what all teenage girls want? Endlessly bored, aching for an audience.”
Perhaps one of the things I loved most about the novel was that, while it’s clear that Vanessa (and all of those like her) has suffered greatly, it also allows the space for her to hold contradictory beliefs without judging her. What I mean by this is that often, people refuse to acknowledge that there may be legitimate feelings of love or attraction on the part of the “victim”. To negate those feelings because the victim is ‘too young’ or was being ‘coerced/manipulated/seduced’ is to undermine that person, who has already been through so much already. Russell never once strays into that territory, always giving her character the benefit of the doubt and allowing her to voice her various beliefs.