Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo
Book cover of \'My Dark Vanessa\' in black and white
Book cover of \'My Dark Vanessa\' in black and white
Kristabel Alvarez

Is ‘My Dark Vanessa’ Worth Your Time? A BookTok Mini-Series

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCF chapter.

Trigger Warning: Discussions of Grooming, Sexual Assault, and Pedophilia

A few days ago, while scrolling through TikTok, I happened to see a BookTok video about a novel titled My Dark Vanessa and I was so intrigued that I got up, went to my car, went to Barnes & Noble, bought the book and read it that night. 24 hours. That was all it took for me to buy it, finish it and start my review. When I finished the novel, I was so overcome with emotions that I knew I had to wait a couple of days to gather my thoughts and process what I had just read. 

*Spoiler Free* 

Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel My Dark Vanessa is a story that goes back and forth between the early 2000s and 2017. Vanessa, our main protagonist, is 15 when she meets 42-year-old English teacher Jacob Strane and begins a relationship with him. In 2017, Vanessa, now aged 32, is faced with challenges when a former student from the same school comes forward with allegations against Strane at the height of the #MeToo movement. The story centers around their relationship, how it’s affected her throughout the years, and how she must come to terms with her life from the past 17 years. Before I continue, I must warn readers that there are trigger warnings. This novel deals with grooming, SA, and pedophilia. 

In all my brutally honest thoughts, I must say that this book was incredibly frustrating, emotionally draining, and, at times, I felt like either hugging Vanessa or screaming at her. I cried, yelled, even felt manipulated by her abuser and found myself wholly dedicated to this novel and Vanessa’s story. I wondered why she continued to make excuses for him. The way Vanessa wouldn’t just come to terms with the fact that she was a victim and her self-realization of it all is heartbreaking to read. Even in college, we see Vanessa almost fall for a professor, comparing him to Strane in all ways they are and aren’t alike, only to be disappointed by him as well.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

The novel brings up Lolita quite a few times, which is a novel by Russian author Vladimir Nabokov where the main protagonist, Humber Humbert, becomes obsessed with 12-year-old American girl Dolores Haze and, in it, he sexually molests her. Strane even gives this book to Vanessa. She has some twisted way of thinking of this as a romance story. She finds herself relating to Lolita and pointing out the similarities between the novel and her “relationship” with the teacher. Russell herself admitted that Lolita heavily inspired My Dark Vanessa in a way where she wanted to share the victim’s perspective instead of the abuser.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to those who may be triggered by the subject; there’s no need to traumatize yourself further by reading it. But, if you are interested, I will say that this has to be one of my favorite books I’ve read this year (which feels weird to admit because of the subject matter). Russell’s writing is compelling; the story feels realistic and doesn’t romanticize grooming at any point. Some negative thoughts I have are that the side characters all fall entirely flat, most of them don’t serve a purpose, and if I were to remove them, nothing would change in the story, and Vanessa’s SA scenes are detailed and challenging to read at times.

Overall, I have never read anything like My Dark Vanessa. It was disturbing but riveting and even days after having read it, I’m still thinking about it. It’s thought-provoking and shows in all ways how the world can be a cruel place. 

Is this book worth it? 

Yes, I would say it’s worth it! But remember the trigger warnings before going in to read it. 

Rating: 4/ 5 stars

Kristabel (She/They) is a senior studying English Literature and History at the University of Central Florida. They love classic horror movies, cuddling with cats Ahsoka and Aero, playing horror games on their PC, and reading anything from new adult fiction to literature classics! Instagram- notkristabel