“I think we’re very similar, Nessa,” he whispers. “From the way you write, I can tell you’re a dark romantic like me. You like dark things.”
This book has been on the most-anticipated lists since 2018 and ever since it was known that the author received a seven-figure advance, there have been some controversies that have arisen. Sometime around January, the author Wendy C. Ortiz of the memoir, Excavation, accused Kate Elizabeth Russell of plagiarism solely on the account of their books sharing a similar theme of a teacher and student embarking on a clandestine relationship together. I can understand Ortiz’s rage against the publishing world who didn’t seem keen on her manuscript when she was shopping it around, and that she had to settle for an indie publisher with no seven-figure advance.
However, to purposely call out a debut author’s work as plagiarizing your own when you haven’t even read the book in question? That seems mean-spirited. After all the backlash that Oprah’s Book Club received with their choice of American Dirt, Oprah was done with controversies and hence, decided to part ways with Russell’s book because of the issue with Ortiz, and it no longer was a choice for her bookclub in March. Despite all of this, the book still became a national bestseller.
Now, is Russell’s book the same Ortiz’s? For someone who has read both, I can state, simply put, no. Sure, they both share the theme of a student falling in love with her English teacher and the teacher taking advantage of the crush for his personal gain and pleasure. But the differences between Vanessa Wye and Wendy Ortiz are many and so ultimately do not tell the same story no matter how similar the themes may be.
Was My Dark Vanessa worthy of all the hype? Yes and no. The first half of the book is compelling and there are moments when you wish the book were a love story, but ultimately it’s very glaring that Jacob Strane was grooming Vanessa and that he took advantage of her (their first sexual encounter is downright cringey and screams rape, not simply because of the age difference but because of the actions from Strane).
The second half of the novel, particularly the portion that takes place during Vanessa’s college years really dragged. Especially since it doesn’t offer much in terms of progressing the plot. Rather, we see Vanessa falling in love with yet another English teacher who is married to a woman that is the school counselor where Strane still works. These chapters were far more laborious to get through and honestly, could have even been cut from the book entirely as they didn’t provide newer insight into Vanessa or Strane.
The ending was as expected, especially since it was obvious that Vanessa was never going to view herself as a victim and for the longest time denied the fact that Strane was a pedo, mostly because it would mean that his interest in her wasn’t because she was special, but more because she fit the nymphet package.
My Dark Vanessa could’ve been a love story if Strane wasn’t so glaringly predatory. His interest in her was most intense when she was underage. He never treated her with the same fascination once she was an adult, and instead seemed to only call her when he needed her to back up his lies. The most heartbreaking lesson you’ll learn from this novel is that trauma can truly define your life, and in this case it defined Vanessa’s relationships, career, and sexuality.
At only 32, Vanessa felt old and could only pain sexual gratification through imagining herself as 15 and reliving sex scenes with Strange over the phone. Vanessa glamorizes the novel, Lolita so much that she doesn’t see Lolita for what it truly is. A novel about a predatory man who only remains obsessed with Lolita because she dies. Vanessa didn’t die so by that logic Strane was no longer obsessed with her. My Dark Vanessa capitalizes on what would’ve been Lolita’s destiny had she survived. I can bet that her adult life would’ve mimicked Vanessa’s very much.
When Lolita doesn’t die, she can only become a survivor.