The title aptly describes this book. The story is dark and difficult. The subject matter is often too explicit, and the language is occasionally foul. The reader will have to gird themselves, in advance, with patience and tolerance in order to bear the pain that splashes and spreads across every page. The story is too important to abandon.
Beginning in 2000 and continuing until 2017, we follow the life of Vanessa Wye, a 15 year old teenager who feels misunderstood by her family and her peers. Although she is highly intelligent, she is also often unduly belligerent and antagonistic without provocation or appropriate justification. She seems to turn people away unwittingly. She assumes she is simply bad and/or different. When she approaches her parents to allow her to go to boarding school, and obtains a full scholarship, they agree.
Although Vanessa is very bright and intuitive, she is oddly very naïve, as well. She has always been very lonely and has few friends. Those she has trusted have betrayed her, sometimes without meaning to do so. Because she is so insecure, she often misjudges their intentions as she over thinks most things. Her mind is so cluttered with thoughts, that as a result, her surroundings are cluttered with disorganization and the detritus of her life. Calling her untidy does not due her justice.
Although only 15, she is aware of the fact that she attracts a certain type of attention because of her attitude and her looks, and she uses these attributes to her ultimate disadvantage and detriment, because of her immaturity. Shortly after she enters the private boarding school for the elite, her misguided efforts and analysis of situations will set off events that will spiral her life out of control. When Vanessa attends her first English class, she notices that her English teacher, Mr. Jacob Strane, seems to be attracted to her. Because she has rarely been complimented or felt adequately appreciated and loved, she encourages his attention. His interest draws her into him like a moth to a flame, although he is 42, and she is 15.
As their romance blossoms and continues to flourish without discovery, some people see hints of the illicit relationship and try to warn her. All attempts fail. When a formal complaint is made against the teacher, it isn’t in the best interest of the school to recognize the scandal, and as a result, the accusation is not investigated fully when Vanessa denies it. Soon circumstances evolve that make Vanessa, and not the teacher, the greater victim. His influence causes her to choose to protect him and accept all the blame and consequences for herself. What follows for her is a life traumatized by their relationship. His manipulation has twisted her thoughts and affected her ability to function fully. His passive aggression controls her every move into her future. His comments, compliments, book suggestions, subtle mood changes and behavior have made her his slave. She is like a canvas that he has painted. All attempts by others to get her to seek help and deal with the results of his abuse, are unsuccessful as she has made a promise never to betray him.
The book goes back and forth in time from the present to different times of her life in the past, illustrating the evolution of their relationship. Although she was so young, her imagination was very vivid. She both loved the control she had over him, and his control over her, which was far greater. Even as he made her feel perfect in some ways, he destroyed her self image in others. Her writing talent was great, but his effect on her might annihilate it, and her ambition. As she matures, she recognizes that his influence is negative and unhealthy, but she then second guesses her better judgment and blames herself for their forbidden relationship. She is unable to sever the ties, and she needs him like a drug addict needs drugs.
In the end, it is Vanessa’s silence to protect her abuser that exposed others to the same abuse. That is why I find the “Me Too” movement disingenuous. Many of the women of the movement complied for selfish reasons. There is no excuse for that because their silence condemned others to the same abusive behavior. The movement represents women who allowed abuse, as adults, not as teens. Vanessa believed she was complicit, because she wanted the attention, but she was far too young to understand what was happening and was easily manipulated. The women of the “Me Too” movement insist that the abuse was unwanted, but they accepted it for the reward. They knew better, and most could have said no. I am not blind to why they were silent, just disturbed by their reasons. I believe that silence makes the victim somewhat complicit and guilty. It means someone else will become a victim unnecessarily.
The in-depth analysis of the characters and the problems they dealt with make this book superb. The author really seems to understand both the victim and the victimizer, intuiting their thoughts and reactions perfectly.
At times the book is too graphic in its sexual descriptions and the language feels unnecessarily foul. The political snipes are also over the top and have no real purpose except to promote the author’s preferences. Fortunately, the comments are rare, but they are noted in negative reviews. I was a little dissatisfied with the conclusion because there was no justice and no change in society’s treatment of the victims. Everything still seems to be status quo, but that is not the fault of the author, but of society. I believe that all accusations have to be investigated, and some will be false. Those will then be rooted out. I do not believe in zero tolerance because that merely allows abuse on the other end of the equation.
There are many pertinent references in the book to the culture of the times. There are references to Monica Lewinsky and Amy Fischer, both accused of being, or were called, Lolita figures. Brittany Spears and a book and song she made popular, which was controversial and, to me, bordered on porn, is also mentioned. I preferred the references to Shakespeare and other well known authors, like Vladimer Nabokov, who wrote Lolita.
I like the cover which has the flap for a book mark and depicts a face that is disturbed with obvious emotion. I thought that the narrator was superb, interpreting the nuances of each character exactly so that each one was distinct and authentic in his/her role.
There is a controversy surrounding this book. There is another author, Wendy Ortiz, who insists that the book was plagiarized from her memoir, “Excavations”. Russell has also been criticized for appropriating a subject to write about without authority, since she was not abused. I believe that, that criticism is without basis. However, in her defense, unnecessarily, she has stated that while it is not her story, it is taken from pieces of her own history.