It took nearly 18 years for Bangor-area native Kate Elizabeth Russell to finish her debut novel. She wrote and revised “My Dark Vanessa,” an examination of a love affair between a teenage female student and a much older male teacher, many times, from high school through college to an MFA program in Kansas.

Cover courtesy of William Morrow

Armed with an agent and blurb from Stephen King, her father’s employer at 100.3 WKIT, Russell eventually earned a seven-figure advance for her book. “My Dark Vanessa” was chosen to be an Oprah’s Book Club pick, until another writer, Wendy C. Ortiz, complained that there were “eerie similarities” between Ortiz’s 2004 memoir, “Excavation,” and Russell’s novel. That Ortiz is Latina and Russell white fueled controversy on Twitter and other social media, at least partly because of apparent biases in the publishing business that seem to disadvantage authors of color. Unlike Ortiz, Russell has not claimed to have been abused by a teacher.

Even though there was little evidence of wrongdoing on Russell’s part, Oprah’s offer was then rescinded. Nevertheless, the book hit the New York Times Best Sellers List.

The first-person, present-tense chapters of “My Dark Vanessa” alternate between 2000 and 2017, flipping from 15-year-old Vanessa Wye’s days in a prestigious Maine boarding school to her early adulthood in Portland. Young Vanessa comes from an attentive, blue collar western Maine family, but feels isolated from and ignored by her classmates. The grown-up Vanessa is a mess – stuck in a job she dislikes, smoking too much pot, pushing away anyone who tries to ameliorate her misery.

In 2000, Jacob Strane, Vanessa’s English teacher, singles her out for attention – praising her poetry, slipping her a copy of Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel,” pressing his knee against her bare thigh while seated at a work station. In 2017, he’s the subject of a Facebook page gone viral, in which another Browick student makes open accusations that he abused her. Asked to comment on Strane’s history, Vanessa is forced to re-evaluate her relationship with him, whether he loved her or abused her, and whether she was damaged by the experience.

It’s hard to say which are more heartbreaking, chapters set in 2000 or those in 2017. In 2000, Vanessa barely stands a chance against Strane’s manipulation. He swears that he had never been in a similar situation. Young Vanessa says, “I was the first student who put the thought in his head. There was something about me that made it worth the risk. I had an allure that drew him in.”

Even in 2017, Vanessa tries to convince herself that there was nothing wrong in the way he treated her. Older Vanessa says, “When Strane and I met, I was fifteen and he was forty-two, a near perfect thirty years between us. That’s how I described the difference back then – perfect.”

At either age, Vanessa doesn’t want to be seen as a victim, insisting that she consented to everything that happened between her and her much older lover. Russell’s choice to work on two timelines proves masterful, setting up a series of juxtaposed ironies that leave the reader engaged but off-balance.

“My Dark Vanessa” is in no way sexy or romantic. The situation is too disturbing, especially in the details Russell provides about the physical aspects of the abuse. But neither is it constantly grim and depressing. Russell allows room for ambiguity, even for the occasional dab of dark humor in the dialogue. Both Strane and Vanessa are nuanced and multi-dimensional characters, as are her parents and various members of the Browick faculty.

It would be difficult to construct a tale of pedophilia without thinking of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.” Strane gives Vanessa a copy of the novel, but she seems to misunderstand the book’s narrator. Young Vanessa isn’t able to see that Humbert Humbert is a rapist and a monster, no matter how cultivated he pretends to be.

The title of Russell’s novel is actually from Nabokov’s lesser-known masterpiece “Pale Fire.” Strane presents a copy to Vanessa, allowing him another opportunity to pontificate: “It’s the type of novel that asks the reader to relinquish control. You have to experience it rather than try to understand it. Postmodernism…”

Strane pushes Vanessa to see the poetry in “Pale Fire” as a reference to her:

“Come and be worshiped, come

and be caressed,

My dark Vanessa…”

“My Dark Vanessa” sometimes reads like a thriller, especially as the behavior of both Strane and Vanessa becomes more unpredictable. But it contains no overt threat of violence. Strane isn’t a serial killer, a boogeyman ready to pounce. He’s something more mundane – a sad, deluded man who sees too late the damage he has caused.

“My Dark Vanessa” benefits from the fact that it comes in the wake of the #MeToo movement. A character mentions a high-profile film director who “enjoyed exposing himself to young actresses,” and Strane is undone partly through the power of social media. But even without its timeliness, Russell’s novel is a remarkably assured debut – direct in its handling of an emotionally charged subject, sly in the unreliability of its difficult yet likable protagonist.

With any luck, it will not be two decades before we hear from Russell again.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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Twitter: mlberry

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