Read: ‘Trust Exercise’ is an elaborate trick of a novel. It’s more than that. 10 funny mockumentaries to remind us about the absurdity of life, Family-friendly Halloween films for boos big and small. An Amazon Best Book of March 2020: My Dark Vanessa is an exploration of the repercussions of a March/December relationship between a teacher and his student. He compliments her style (“It seems strange for a middle-aged man to notice girl clothes,” she observes) and puts his hand over hers while she’s struggling with a computer program. He feeds her literature about redheads, including Sylvia Plath's "Ariel" ("Out of the ash, I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air") and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, another redhead from Maine. I wanted to see what about it might have fascinated Russell so that she spent the best part of her academic career until now crafting a love story between an underage girl and an older man—Lolita from Lolita’s point of view, if you will. “From the way you write, I can tell you’re a dark romantic like me. By Red Newsom. One of her favorite novels as a teenager was Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, which she similarly interpreted at the time as a chronicle of forbidden love, one that allowed young girls more power and more romantic possibility than propriety (not to mention the law) gave them. To the reader, Strane is a textbook predator, his behavior so predictable it’s almost banal. (In The Power Notebooks, Katie Roiphe addresses this issue in the relationship she had as a 15-year-old with her divorced, 32-year-old rabbi, writing about her shame for liking and wanting the things they did together, but also her abiding sense of wrongness.). My Rating: 4 of 5 stars. In fact, she's nowhere near as sympathetic as the grown woman in Walbert's His Favorites, who recounts painful memories of her unwanted sexual relationship with her 34-year-old New England boarding school teacher when she was 15, and her stymied attempts to expose it. Entertainment Weekly may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. That’s not to say that characters need to be “perfect” victims—Vanessa’s stubborn contrarianism, her inconsistency, the distance between the lies she tells other people and the lies she tells herself, are the most interesting things about her. “I was the first student who put the thought in his head,” is how she characterizes the “teacher-student romance” between them, as glassy and automated as a Manson family member. We Insist: A Timeline Of Protest Music In 2020, 'His Favorites' Is An Artful Argument For #MeToo — And More, Teen Years Echo Through A Lifetime In 'Trust Exercise'. You like dark things.”, Read: Three novels that capture the long-term effects of sexual assault and harassment, These interactions are electric for Vanessa, not because she’s attracted to Strane—the physical response he inspires in her is disgust—but because it upends the way she sees herself. Part of what makes My Dark Vanessa difficult to read is the novel’s own mutation even before it was published. In a short essay, Roiphe describes a sexual “relationship” (the meaningful quotation marks are Roiphe’s own) she had with a 30-something rabbi when she was 15, Vanessa’s age. (She tells Strane she thought “that we might, I don’t know, kiss or something,” and when they do, her immediate reaction is to observe “how weird it is that he has a tongue.”) She believes that Strane sees her as a flame-haired soul mate radiating heat and darkness in equal measure. Even so, this upsetting novel, which powerfully unpacks so much about the trauma of abuse, victimhood, silencing, misplaced guilt, power, consent, and wayward desire, is a significant addition to the necessary reassessments and conversations sparked by the #MeToo movement. So: More to come. Vanessa seems to realize that she’s been violated, without knowing what to do with that fact. Russell’s evolving conception of My Dark Vanessa may explain why Vanessa’s story veers so wildly between obsession and disgust, between her steadfast defenses of Strane and her flashes of insight. It’s easy to see that she’s parroting Strane’s words. Vanessa, who is 15 when she first meets the English teacher Jacob Strane and 32 when Strane is implicated in a string of abuse allegations, is a fiendishly difficult, almost willfully blinkered narrator. How she sobs at night. “What kind of monster,” a Facebook commenter asks on the first page of My Dark Vanessa, “could do that to a child?” It’s an instantly provocative question, which Kate Elizabeth Russell’s first novel—one of the splashier literary debuts of the year—immediately begins to complicate: The gulf between the person telling the story and the reader receiving it may feel as unconquerable as the Mariana Trench. Adult Vanessa similarly recounts, matter-of-factly, how she tried to have sex with Strane in her late 20s, re-creating the first time, even wearing the same pajamas. You get the (ahem) drift. I’ve been thrown by the book since I read an advance copy a few months ago, before it was swept up in the drama surrounding Jeanine Cummins’s border-set immigration novel, American Dirt, and the prickly issue of whether publishers favor trauma narratives by white writers over writers of color. The English teacher, meanwhile, has always been a composite. In her writing, Russell sought to juxtapose memory, trauma, and the aftermath of abuse with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl understanding for the first time the power her body can wield. His attentions lead her to feel treasured and powerful, as he reminds her how much he's risking and she becomes aware of her ability to destroy him. It forced Russell to not only reevaluate her characters’ journeys — an accusation plot-line had been moved to the center — but also her own experiences. I had an allure that drew him in.”. This becomes her twisted bible and a touchstone for Russell's novel — which takes its title from the stanza Strane flags in another Nabokov novel, Pale Fire, which begins, "My dark Vanessa, worshipped and caressed.". “Maybe I’m actually a loner by choice.” Even in their earliest interactions, he’s rewiring the way she thinks, the way she understands herself. 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. The difficulty of My Dark Vanessa lies in its adult narrator, who refuses to acknowledge her childhood trauma even as she recounts it. My Dark Vanessa has clearly been worked and reworked to a fare-thee-well, but sometimes feels crafted to a fault. From all the books I have read in 2020, I must say, My Dark Vanessa very easily rose up to become one of my favorites. As American Dirt continues to plague Oprah’s PR staff, a forthcoming novel is creating a similar stir. First, he lets Vanessa know that he sees her as a person, not a student. On the face of things, Russell’s book is about an adult woman coming to terms with events that have shaped both the contours of her life and the structure of her mind. In therapy, she clings darkly to the idea that her history with Strane makes her exceptional. The novel charts how, over time, he plays on her fear of abandonment and she plays on his fear of exposure. “I think Lolita spoke to the desire I had to be taken seriously by the people who I thought held the keys to the worlds I wanted access to — of art and writing and music and culture….
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