Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel, “My Dark Vanessa” is both the most important and the most compelling novel to date of 2020. It adds nuance and ambiguity to the sometimes frightening excesses of The Me Too movement, which perhaps fiction can do far better than journalism. Deeply researched, the novel concerns a fifteen year old girl (the Vanessa of the title), who’s grown up in a tiny, remote town in rural Maine, and who gets a scholarship to a pricey, fancy boarding school in Maine; she starts as a sophomore, and, though she’s had a perhaps overly close friendship with her first roommate, she’s basically a loner: this posture is less a pose of adolescence than a real choice, tho Vanessa is still smarting from the loss of her roommate to a boyfriend she can’t abide. Vanessa’s parents, it’s important to say, seem like decent people, so that what happens later to Vanessa can’t be traced to some unhappy childhood and/or parental dysfunction.
It’s clear that Vanessa is very smart, a writer of poetry, and she comes to the attention of her English teacher, generally just called Strane throughout the novel, a single man in his mid-forties, considered one of the school’s toughest and most brilliant teachers. He often singles out Vanessa in class, and she begins to spend her free period every day sitting in his classroom and/or office. The first time he puts his hand on her knee, she’s unsure whether it was an accident or deliberate, but before you know it, Strane has seduced her emotionally, psychologically and sexually, including inviting her to his house, giving her sexy sleepwear and, of course, a copy of the novel “Lolita” (a nice touch on Russell’s part). The reader is aware that Strane is a pederast, that his attraction/obsession with Vanessa can only last as long as she is adolescent (around l5). However, Russell refuses to allow Vanessa to be a stereotypical victim; Vanessa believes that she has as much or more power over Strane as he does over her; their relationship is complex, often seeming to be very loving and caring, and Russell forces the reader to having some empathy for Strane, who, however, will betray Vanessa when rumors of his predatory behavior come to the attention of the school’s headmaster, and Vanessa is thrown out of the school after having to “confess” to her class that she has lied about her relationship with Strane, written off as “adolescent fantasy”. (One sees how willing authorities are to so assume of accusations made by adolescent girls about male teachers). The entire power structure of the school works against Vanessa. But their affair does not stop once she’s left the boarding school, and that’s where the book begins to hit its greatness.
Vanessa is working at a hotel as a concierge at the age of 32, as the book flashes back and forth since her departure from the school; she eventually does go to college, where she will once again try to recreate the same kind of relationship with a male English teacher there, who seems a bit enamored of her brilliance (yet again) but who doesn’t fall for her seductiveness: that she tries to repeat the pattern from boarding school is a measure of how much Strane has ruined her (he tells her many times that he is ruining her, which she dismisses out of hand). And as other girls from the boarding school accuse Strane, Vanessa continues to fiercely defend him (he needs her to continue to shut up, so he sees her from time to time, but that’s really not his only motive). Vanessa refuses to talk to an alleged feminist reporter who tracks down the rumors of this affair, and when she actually meets a later accuser, another young adolescent girl (all that had happened to her was that Strane had put his hand on her knee, which “traumatizes” her), Vanessa also dismisses her out of hand. Vanessa believes she loves Strane, probably does, in her way, feels fully complicit in the affair that Strane started with her. The reader sees how this affair has ruined Vanessa’s life, full of alcoholic binges and sleezy one night stands with guys she picks up randomly on the streets. Strane’s belief that both he and Vanessa are “dark romantics” is a very compelling emotional trope, which she believes and fiercely defends. (I go into some plot detail here because the author does, making Vanessa’s behavior sometimes seem quite rational and gives her the illusion of having made choices of her own, not having been seduced by a predatory pederast).
Strane has continued to guide Vanessa’s readings and encourages her seemingly exceptional poetry. Russell excels when writing the sex scenes between these two, as Vanessa completely dissociates during them, which she can’t understand because she’s 15; eventually, the therapist she sees for allegedly other reasons will begin to break down Vanessa’s long held shield about this relationship; Vanessa’s reticence is great because if Strane is nothing more than a sexual predator, then she believes that she has wasted her life to date loving and defending him.
That Russell is able to penetrate so deeply into a relationship between an adolescent girl and a male teacher at her school is astonishing in and of itself; the novel is quite the page-turner, too; Russell has taken a truly fraught topic in contemporary life and culture and made it much more complex than the “J’accuses” in the media that have become hallmarks of some of the “Me, Too” movement. Russell adds complexity and nuance and ambiguity, refuses the black-and -white “right/wrong” binary of some recent accusations and lets her readers know that life is often far more complex than “he did this” and “I was a victim”. As such, it’s a very important novel, and it’s also brilliantly written and psychologically as astute a novel as I’ve read this year. “My Dark Vanessa” may well be a masterpiece.