MY DARK VANESSA by Karen Elizabeth Russell (William Morrow, 384 pp., $27.99)
Karen Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel, "My Dark Vanessa," is a dishy, dark, distracting work of commercial fiction — and an important addition to the literature of #metoo. Taking up where "Lolita" left off, it burrows deep inside the complicated psychology of that type of relationship from the girl’s perspective, allowing readers to clearly grasp the emotional intricacies and long-range implications of this abuse.
An indicator of the book’s explosive nature comes on page 1, where the author offers an understandably anxious-sounding disclaimer that despite certain parallels, “this is not my personal story nor that of my teachers nor anyone I know.” On the next page, she dedicates the work to the real-life “Dolores Hazes and Vanessa Wyes” — the heroines of Nabokov’s novel and her own — “whose stories have not yet been heard, believed, or understood.”
Both would surely send her a thank you note if they could.
Russell’s narrator tells the story of her affair with Jacob Strane, her English teacher at a private boarding school called Browick, from a perspective more than 15 years later. Despite disturbing recent developments, Vanessa can still vividly conjure exactly the way she felt about it at the time.
“When Strane and I met, I was 15 and he was 42, a near perfect 30 years between us. That’s how I described the difference back then. I loved the math of it, three times my age, how easy it was to imagine three of me fitting inside him: one of me curled around his brain, another around his heart, the third turned to liquid and sliding through his veins.”
The recent challenges to her adolescent understanding of their relationship come from the rise of the #metoo movement, which has inspired another student of Strane’s to come forward with a public accusation. Before long, others join her. At first, Vanessa can’t believe it, and even after she does, she refuses to join them.
From the beginning, Strane told her that she was the first, the only, that it had nothing to do with how young she was, only her “genius-level emotional intelligence” and her “dark romanticism,” so much like his own. “It’s just my luck,” he complains, “that when I find my soulmate, she’s 15 years old.”
And so the grooming begins. The praise for her writing. The compliments on her appearance. The accidental leg-brushing. The loaned copy of "Lolita." “If I lend you this,” he says, “you have to promise me not to let anyone know it was me who gave it to you.” It works exactly as he intended.
The attitudes and behavior of Browick’s other faculty and administration come into sharp focus when Vanessa’s one-time roommate and best friend becomes the only person brave enough to break the silence. What happens next is as disastrous for Vanessa as the sex itself, and the collateral damage has never stopped. Despite her incredible potential back in high school, she went to a second-tier college and now works as a hotel receptionist. Her connections with men have been permanently warped by her experiences with Strane, and almost more sadly, it poisons her relationship with her parents.
It’s still kind of amazing that #metoo ever happened, that as a society, we have finally been able to admit the invidiousness of the sexual power dynamic that runs all through our culture and lives. Nothing looks the same anymore. We’ll probably be reading other revisions of the " Lolita" story, but My Dark Vanessa is a great place to start.
LI Arts, Theater and Books editor