My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

No, I didn’t read this book out of any type of name ego toward the title……ok, maybe I did a little. But that quickly went by the wayside as I traveled deeper into this very hard read. This book takes on the concept of what it truly means to be a victim in our society. It takes the truth and plays with it in such a way that you don’t know who to blame, who to be angry toward, feminism, victim-blaming and victim-shaming, the sexual boundary between youth and adulthood, and what our minds do to protect ourselves and justify our actions, our thoughts and our beliefs.

The story is told in two timeframes: starting in 2000 when 14-year old Vanessa Wye starts attending a private high school and begins a tumultuous affair with her 40-something English professor Jacob Strane, and in 2017 when Vanessa is an adult, living a mediocre life of one-night stands, failed relationships, thrashed apartments and a dead-end job…….and still involved (if only emotionally) with Jacob Strane. It’s a clever device because it contrasts between the youth and hope and destructiveness of Vanessa’s teen year as she is gradually groomed into becoming Strane’s lover; and her cynicism, bitterness and inability to see herself as having been a victim as an adult. She can’t seem to get her life together in any real way, stuck as she is in her job and same ways of doing things and continuing with the dysfunctional and simultaneous love and repulsion she feels toward Strane.

It’s a sign of just how much he was able to manipulate her mentally and emotionally that even as an adult, Vanessa cannot separate her own desire to live her own life and not be considered a victim with her inability to separate herself from Strane. She is physically repulsed by him as an adult but cannot break that bond with him and still tells him she will remain loyal to him even as more and more students come out of the woodwork to accuse him of sexual assault, sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior.

Nabokov’s disturbing book Lolita is invoked throughout, and there are shades of The Police’s rock hit “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” as well. It’s compelling and repulsive at the same time. Repulsion is a good word here, because it reminds me of that famous quote by Freud: “on the other side of desire lies repulsion.” For me, that quote perfectly sums up Vanessa’s feelings toward Strane. As a teenager, she loves his attention toward her, loves his passionate personality, loves the portrait of herself that he sees in his mind when he looks at her, and is physically repelled by the actual act of sexual intercourse with him. That pattern continues throughout their increasingly twisted relationship.

We all know that any 40-year old who pursues any type of relationship with a 14-year old is twisted. We all know that any teacher who pursues any type of sexual relationship with a student is messed up. Why this book is so hard to put down and so hard to continue reading is because there are times when you go back and forth about who pursued who and I think you’re meant to, to really get your head into that space of seeing exactly how subtle the manipulation is by Strane, but also recognizing that Vanessa genuinely loves his attention, loves him. I remember clearly being a senior in high school and becoming aware of my own feminine power and my own physicality. It’s hard, because a young woman just coming into her awareness of her own sexuality is a beautiful thing, and can be very empowering and also very heady. I think that’s why Vanessa has such a hard time allowing herself to truly believe she’s been a victim of Strane’s manipulation – it’s tied up in her own awakening and awareness of her own sexuality and the power that comes with that.

This is probably one of the heaviest reads I’ve come across in years. I couldn’t put it down but I had to at times because the intensity of Vanessa’s darkness, her switching back and forth between realizing how she’d been manipulated and abused and making excuses for Strane and blaming herself for what ultimately happens and maintaining this weird loyalty toward him……….this is the ultimate example of Stockholm Syndrome and you realize just how powerful his hold is over her. She starts gradually excavating her own feelings and realizations as the book goes on, and the ending implies she is at least starting to acknowledge how deeply and horribly damaged she was by Strane and what a bastard he truly is, and finding her own strength. But it comes at a cost, as does everything in life that makes us stronger.

I didn’t go into this book intending it as a food in books post, simply because my head wasn’t in that space due to the subject matter. But I did come across a few interesting food references, and this one in particular stood out to me since it was something I’d never heard of or made before. It’s when Strane takes Vanessa out to dinner during her senior year in college and he is trying to push her into going to graduate school……and with the expectation that after dinner, she’ll go back to his hotel with him. He takes her to some fancy-schmancy restaurant where she peruses the menu before getting drunk….so drunk that she can’t have sex with him…….her subconscious method of keeping the physical aspect of their relationship at bay. Yes, it’s creepy.

The first week in November, Strane makes a reservation at an expensive restaurant down the coast and books us a hotel room. He tells me to dress up, so I wear a black dress with thin straps, the only nice thing I own. The restaurant is Michelin-starred, Strane says, and I pretend to know what it means……..The menu is all stuff like scallops with asparagus flan, tenderloin crusted with foie gras. Nothing has a price.

So, asparagus flan it was.

INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
A dozen asparagus spears, trimmed and halved
1 and 1/2 cups crumbled blue cheese
1/3 cup of sour cream (or creme fraiche if you can find it)
3 large eggs, beaten
Zest of 1 lemon

METHOD
Heat the oven to 325F and butter four oven-safe ramekins. Put on your kettle at the same time so you’ll have boiling water.

Boil the asparagus in salted water for 1-3 minutes until bright green, then drain and plunge into ice water. Drain and pat dry.

Over medium heat, whisk together the blue cheese and the sour cream until smooth and creamily melted together.

Add the eggs gradually and mix together, then divide among the four ramekins, and top with the asparagus.

Grate the lemon zest over each filled ramekin.

Place the ramekins in a large glass baking pan and carefully pour in the boiling water, so that it comes to halfway up the sides of the ramekins. This is what you’d call a water bath or a bain-marie and it helps create a smooth and creamy baked texture.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, and let cool for up to 15 minutes, before serving with skillet-seared scallops in a lemon-wine-caper-butter sauce. It’s a delicious meal, rich and decadent and satisfying without being overwhelming.

15 thoughts on “My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

  1. …another lovely post and read. I could, I’m afraid, tell you on such a kind of
    relation… but, let that be. And so might you, a little. libera nos a malo…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Your asparagus flan and scallops look so good!!! I think your synopsis and reflections on the book sum it up really really well. It sounds like a book that really makes you think, sometimes in directions you’re not sure you want your brain to go lol Thank you for sharing this!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much! They were quite delicious and enjoyable to make. I appreciate your thoughts on the book, too. It really was a tough read, for many reasons, and you’re spot on about it making your mind go into some places you maybe would rather not. Still, I’m very glad I read it. It opened my eyes to a lot of things in our society.

      Liked by 1 person

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