My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell ~ Review

vanessa
My Dark Vanessa
by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: March 10, 2020

Publisher: William Morrow

Synopsis: 

Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of RoomMy Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.

ratingfive

My Dark Vanessa successfully walks a very delicate balance, managing to fully embody the mind of a teenage girl romanticizing her relationship with a grown man without straying into the territory of the narrative itself endorsing that mindset. Vanessa, like most 15-year-olds, believes herself to be wise beyond her years. The novel, which takes place in two timelines 17 years apart, delves into Vanessa’s experience with her teacher while she was still in the thick of it, as well as her much more complicated feelings about it years down the line.

I can imagine that a lot of readers will find Vanessa difficult to love, and I honestly think this is a testament to how well she is written. This is such a raw exploration of the ways trauma can impact a person, and that’s not always easy to look at. Spiraling into depression can leave people dealing with substance abuse, feeling too emotionally drained to do something as simple as washing the dishes, and lashing out at people who don’t deserve it. Vanessa is defensive and angry and messy, and she has every right to be these things. If she’d grown up without any of these qualities, it may have been a feel-good story about overcoming adversity, but it would not have felt real.

The incorporation of the #metoo movement could have easily felt like a cheap attempt to make the novel feel timely, but it was incorporated into the book so extremely well and brought up uncomfortable questions about speaking up. In the face of a worldwide movement bringing down predators like Harvey Weinstein, what does this mean for victims who cannot or will not speak up, especially for those who live with the knowledge that the person who victimized them went on to do it to others? Do we place an unfair sense of culpability on the shoulders of women and girls dealing with the aftermath of a trauma?

My Dark Vanessa is such a solid exploration of all the nuance that can come with topics as sensitive as consent, agency, and sexual assault. Please be aware, however, this can be an extremely difficult book to read. Content warning for graphic descriptions of sexual abuse.buy

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Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, by Donna Freitas (Review)

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Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention
by Donna Freitas

Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir

Length: 336 Pages

Release date: August 13, 2019

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Synopsis: 

Donna Freitas has lived two lives. In one life, she is a well-published author and respected scholar who has traveled around the country speaking about Title IX, consent, religion, and sex on college campuses. In the other, she is a victim, a woman who suffered and suffers still because she was stalked by her graduate professor for more than two years.

As a doctoral candidate, Freitas loved asking big questions, challenging established theories and sinking her teeth into sacred texts. She felt at home in the library, and safe in the book-lined offices of scholars whom she admired. But during her first year, one particular scholar became obsessed with Freitas’ academic enthusiasm. He filled her student mailbox with letters and articles. He lurked on the sidewalk outside her apartment. He called daily and left nagging voicemails. He befriended her mother, and made himself comfortable in her family’s home. He wouldn’t go away. While his attraction was not overtly sexual, it was undeniably inappropriate, and most importantly–unwanted.

In Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, Donna Freitas delivers a forensic examination of the years she spent stalked by her professor, and uses her nightmarish experience to examine the ways in which we stigmatize, debate, and attempt to understand consent today.

rating

four

My thanks to Little, Brown and Company for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

Consent was a difficult read in some respects; it was difficult to see the author recount her trauma, but more than that, it was difficult to think about the excuses she internally made for her stalker before things escalated out of control. Most women have been there, with varying degrees of severity. (Maybe he doesn’t realize he’s being inappropriate? Maybe I’m being overly sensitive and he’s not actually being inappropriate at all? Maybe I said/did/wore something that made him think this behavior would be welcome?)

This memoir is a an engrossing exploration of blurry lines of consent and the harassers who rely on plausible deniability to get away with their behavior. Donna Freitas was an enthusiastic student who loved getting to know her professors. This is probably part of why it took her a while to see that her abuser’s intentions were less than innocent. But a large part of this was probably also due to the professor’s intentionally chipping away at boundaries slowly, so as to acclimate his target to his attentions. By the time things escalated to the point that Freitas felt the need to get outside help, she’d already been in over her head for quite some time. The memoir does an excellent job of illuminating the process abusers of all sorts often use on those they target; things start small and often escalate slowly, all while the victim is questioning whether they’re crazy to feel uncomfortable at every step.

While this was at times an emotionally taxing read, I definitely recommend it to fans of memoirs and feminist works. The author’s exploration of consent, gaslighting, trauma, and institutions that shield powerful men from consequences are all important and timely.

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Whisper Network, by Chandler Baker (Review)


Whisper Network
by Chandler Baker

Genre: Fiction, Mystery

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: July 2, 2019

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Synopsis: 

Four women learn their boss (a man who’s always been surrounded by rumors about how he treats women) is next in line to be CEO—what will happen when they decide enough is enough?

Sloane, Ardie, Grace, and Rosalita are four women who have worked at Truviv, Inc., for years. The sudden death of Truviv’s CEO means their boss, Ames, will likely take over the entire company. Ames is a complicated man, a man they’ve all known for a long time, a man who’s always been surrounded by…whispers. Whispers that have always been ignored by those in charge. But the world has changed, and the women are watching Ames’s latest promotion differently. This time, they’ve decided enough is enough.

Sloane and her colleagues set in motion a catastrophic shift within every floor and department of the Truviv offices. All four women’s lives—as women, colleagues, mothers, wives, friends, even adversaries—will change dramatically as a result.

“If only you had listened to us,” they tell us on page one, “none of this would have happened.”

ratingfour

My thanks to Flatiron Books for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

When I saw Whisper Network described as essentially a mystery novel for the #metoo era, I was super intrigued but also a little wary. I think with books that seem very timely, there’s always the risk that they’ll come across opportunistic and insincere. Not so with Whisper Network, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise of a novel.

An undercurrent of whispers in the corporate world comes to a head when the sudden death of Truviv’s CEO leaves one infamously badly behaved higher up in the company poised to take over. The story takes place mainly in one timeline as tension is mounting, with hints at the disaster to come shown in the form of police interviews after the fact. (Think Big Little Lies style snippets, giving you tiny bits of information at at a time.)

Of the four main characters mentioned in the synopsis, Sloane and Roselita seemed to be the best developed. I think the sheer number of POV characters is part of what kept this from hitting a full five stars for me. I understand why the author made the choices she did, as she was trying to weave together a lot of secrets and personal histories, so this may be down to my own personal taste, as I generally like spending more time in a novel with one or two characters in order to really understand them. I would have liked a bit more focus on Sloane and Roselita, but your mileage may vary.

As a woman in a professional setting, there was something kind of cathartic about this novel, particularly certain sections which were written somewhat aside from the main narrative, and read almost like a plea directly to the reader, such as the following passage:

So when we said that we would prefer not to have to asked to smile on top of working, we meant that: we would like to do our jobs, please. When we said that we would like not to hear a comment about the length of our skirt, we meant that: we would like to of our jobs, please. When we said that we would like not to have someone try to touch us in our office, we meant that: we would like to do our jobs. Please.

Every woman with a job, particularly those of us with already relatively high-stress jobs, can feel this in her bones. The frustration of having so much to deal with at work… and then having someone else’s inappropriate behavior thrown on top of it like the cherry on top of the sundae is just too real.

Baker has written several books prior to Whisper Network, but appears to have focused on the young adult genre. I think she’s starting to find her groove with her latest novel and I hope she comes out with more adult fiction in the future!

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