Book Review: “My Dark Vanessa” by Kate Elizabeth Russell

My book review for this month is the novel “My Dark Vanessa” by Kate Elizabeth Russell. It’s a novel depicting a relationship between a 15-year old private school student and her English teacher. The narrative alternates by chapter between the past (when the protagonist is 15 in 2000 and actively involved with the teacher) and 17 years later (when the protagonist is 32). The protagonist (Vanessa) has to decide if she’s going to participate in the wave of allegations against this teacher that fall after the 2017 ”Me Too” movement.

I can’t quite recall how I found about Kate Elizabeth Russell’s first novel “My Dark Vanessa” (published in 2020). I think I was perusing books that were recommended for me on my Amazon Kindle. It was on a list of “most anticipated” and I immediately fell in love with the title. Titles can do that to me. If I just like how it sounds or I find it clever, I’m more apt to read a book (call me superficial). So I actually pre-ordered it (which I have only done a handful of times) and read it as soon as it was released. I finished it a few months ago but wanted to review a brain/illness-related book for March to celebrate Brain Injury Awareness Month (read my review of “The Empathy Exams”) and then last month I reviewed a novel I had pushed aside reviewing because of Brain Injury Awareness Month (read my review of “Daisy Jones and The Six”). So NOW it’s finally time to review “My Dark Vanessa.”

Before I really get into my review, I will note that “My Dark Vanessa” has been a part of some controversy. You can read this Slate article about the controversy to get an idea. After reading the Slate article and the statement “Vanessa” author Kate Elizabeth Russell put on her website, I feel I can do a basic summary of the controversy. (This Vulture article also summarizes the controversy.) A memoirist is saying their account in their memoir (published in 2015) is too close to the relationship portrayed in “My Dark Vanessa” to be coincidental. The accusation is that Russell was able to fictionalize the account and much more easily get a huge publishing contract because she’s white and the memoirist (Wendy Ortiz) is non-white. Earlier this year there was another controversy involving the novel “American Dirt” where a Hispanic author claimed they had written something similar but the very white publishing industry didn’t easily publish or pay much attention to her book. While it seems like there might be something behind the “American Dirt” controversy I am choosing to believe Russell when she says she was inspired by many things but the primary experience that inspired her was her relationships with older men when she was a teenager. Unfortunately, abuse and inappropriate sexual relationships are common. I wish they weren’t. And the possibility that both Ortiz and Russell had such relationships and experiences that they used as inspiration for their own writing could easily be the case (unfortunately). And Russell has cited on her website endless sources of influence (one of the many sources of influence is Ortiz’s memoir “Excavation”). As someone who is working on a memoir but also writes fiction, I see the truth in how Russell cites her influences and talks about writing this novel for 20 years (hopefully it doesn’t take me that long to write my memoir).

Since I just mentioned my memoir (which is about my severe Traumatic Brain Injury), I will mention something I have mentioned before about myself. I am noticing that books with more serious tones about serious topics are really affecting me more after my severe Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). I first noticed it when I was reading “Catch and Kill” by Ronan Farrow. Farrow’s book is a nonfiction account of his reporting of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse and harassment case (read my review of “Catch and Kill”). When reading that book I was consumed by it. I didn’t sleep well and had disturbing dreams. I also thought about the book constantly. I thought about and read a lot of articles about the case and the real women accusers. The more I tried to turn off my brain, the more it turned on. This was a change compared to how I had been the year I read nearly 250 books (in 2017 while healing from the accident). I think my brain was still actively healing in 2017, so even though I read a wide variety of books (both serious and humorous), I didn’t have the same reaction to serious subject matter as I do now. Now when I read books like “Catch and Kill” and “My Dark Vanessa, ” that are more serious in tone and subject matter, I can’t turn off my brain and stop thinking about the books. After reading “Catch and Kill” I thought maybe I was having that reaction because it was a nonfiction book based on true accounts. These poor people actually lived through this. So when I started to have the same reaction to the fictional “Vanessa” (even though, as I mentioned above, I found out later it was inspired by a true account) I realized that my brain doesn’t care if the trauma it is finding out about is fiction or nonfiction, it just senses the drama and the trauma. So now that I know this about my brain I’m being a little more careful with what I choose to read. Especially since I’m in the same stressed-out boat as everyone else during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Well, I have spent the bulk of this review explaining things and not actually reviewing the book. I did really enjoy the novel and felt like it was unique in how it was framed in the “Me Too” movement. As I read it I felt like 2017 Vanessa was someone I had befriended who was telling me about this experience in her life. Just as it is when a friend tells you a personal story in real life, I felt like telling Vanessa to “wake up” and realize what happened to her. However, I came to realize Vanessa needed to get there on her own. (Sidenote: the “controversy” surrounding the novel saddens me on this same level because Russell was forced to admit her own personal experience in order to distance herself from the controversy. Forcing victims to come forward is hardly where we should want to be as a society.)

As I said at the beginning of my review, I was drawn to the title “My Dark Vanessa” and that helped me choose the book. Happily, I can report that the title isn’t a throwaway. The author references it in several different ways throughout the novel. All of which I found satisfying.

I was glad I read this book because it truly was well written and I’m always happy to read about experiences different from my own. I hope that Russell isn’t discouraged by the controversy she experienced with this (her first) novel and continues to write.

Memoir Writing Update

As I stated in last week’s blog post, I am putting the writing of my memoir on hold for now during the pandemic. Times of high stress (like now) don’t really inspire me to write about another time of high stress in my life: my survival and recovery from a coma and severe TBI (the topic of my memoir).

#CreativityForDays Project & a @selbysweetie conclusion

I have created quite a few things lately. Ranging from writing children’s stories to writing blogs. However, the thing I recently created (besides this blog) is a chalk drawing on our driveway. And of course a drawing of my forever/furry muse @selbysweetie. Gosh, I love that dog as much as geeks love Star Wars (a bold statement, especially around Star Wars Day… but I stand by it)!

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