Kate Elizabeth Russell's buzzy debut storms into the midst of the #MeToo era, promising conversation and controversy.

By Leah Greenblatt
March 05, 2020 at 08:30 AM EST
Kate Elizabeth Russell Author photo Credit: HarperCollins My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
HarperCollins (2)

My Dark Vanessa

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He's 42; she's 15. How could anyone call that a love story? But for Vanessa Wye it is, from the moment her teacher reaches out in the middle of American lit and touches her knee. For first-time novelist Kate Elizabeth Russell, it's also one hell of a calling card: a sticky psychosexual debut with a seven-figure publishing deal and a finger pressed hard to the pulse of a cultural movement.

Vanessa is almost invisible at her Maine boarding school, the kind of girl not shiny enough to be noticed by boys, but too smart to chase them. Jacob Strane is a big, bearish man with a passion for poetry and Nabokov; the personal copy of Lolita that he hands her after class one day is just the first of many small, incremental intimacies to follow. "It wasn't about how young I was, not for him," Vanessa insists. "Lurking deep within me, he said, was a dark romanticism, the same kind he saw within himself. No one had understood that dark part of him until I came along." Nobody, of course, except the other girls whose names suddenly become news nearly two decades after she's left the school — but still not her middle-aged lover-destroyer — in shame.

Russell spools out her fractured narrative like a sort of feverish memory play, with Vanessa as the defiant, furious defender of something she still insists, even at 32, on labeling a romance. It's a tricky line to walk, strung somewhere between outrage and empathy, and My Dark Vanessa's workmanlike prose — no flights of Nabokovian fancy here — sometimes falters. But it's the kind that stays with you, too: the story of a girl whose life becomes the answer to a question she never really had a chance to refuse. B+

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