It’s rare when a book attracts as much months-long national hype as Bangor-area native Kate Elizabeth Russell’s upcoming “My Dark Vanessa,” which netted the first-time author a seven-figure book deal in 2018. It has appeared on many lists of most anticipated books of 2020, and it was an Oprah’s Book Club pick. It’s due out Tuesday, and is expected to debut at the top of bestseller lists.
It’s even rarer for such a book to also cause a local fuss, as “My Dark Vanessa” has. Russell’s novel is set in part in a town called Norumbega, at a private school called Browick — both very clearly inspired by Russell’s years in and around Bangor, and by John Bapst Memorial High School, which Russell attended in 1999 and 2000.
While Norumbega is, in some ways, different from Bangor, it’s nevertheless strikingly similar — from references to a Masonic Hall that burned in the winter, to the placement of Browick’s campus in relation to Norumbega’s downtown (at the top of a hill, overlooking it).
Russell grew up in nearby Clifton. Her father, Bobby Russell, is a longtime DJ and program director for WKIT-FM, the classic rock radio station owned by Stephen King. She has lived in the Midwest for a number of years, after attending the University of Maine at Farmington for her undergraduate degree. But her youth in Maine remains vivid in her mind — and in the book.
“While I wanted to capture what makes Maine special in my mind, especially the nature I was immersed in as a child — the lakes and deep woods, the brutal weather and dramatic landscapes — I’ve heard from many early readers that they feel this novel could take place anywhere,” Russell said in an email interview with the Bangor Daily News. “I wonder if that’s because much of Vanessa’s story feels universal.”
“My Dark Vanessa” deals with the title character, Vanessa Wye, and her affair with a teacher at Browick, 42-year-old Jacob Strane, which began when the character was just 15.
If a reader has a passing knowledge of Russell’s personal backstory in the Bangor area, it is easy to make assumptions about the inspiration behind the novel — especially given that Russell has not been clear about how much her personal background plays into the story.
Russell said in the book’s foreword that the book “is not my personal story nor that of my teachers or of anyone I know.” In subsequent interviews, she’s either avoided the topic, or has made it clear that her book is a work of fiction — though she’s also admitted that her novel draws from her own experiences as a teenager.
“Like all writers, I draw inspiration from lived experience, but other sources as well, including the research I conducted as a graduate student, and the culture we all live in,” she said. “Throughout the years spent working on the book, I channeled all that inspiration into a fictional narrative that I hope will resonate with readers. ‘My Dark Vanessa’ is a novel and shouldn’t be read any other way.”
But Russell’s novel attracted more attention earlier this year when writer Wendy C. Ortiz tweeted that Russell’s novel bore similarities to her own 2014 novel, “Excavation,” which also dealt with a teenager’s relationship with a teacher. Russell and Ortiz (who is of Latin American descent) got caught up in the dialogue surrounding the marginalization of writers of color, and the fact that white authors often get much more lucrative book deals and favorable media coverage. Ortiz also alluded to the fact that Russell said her book was entirely fictional, bringing up the question of whether someone who has not suffered abuse should make up a story about it.
In February, Russell issued a clarifying statement, saying that the book was “inspired by my own experiences as a teenager,” that her “relationships with older men” informed the writing of “My Dark Vanessa,” and that victims should not be compelled to “share the details of their personal trauma with the public.”
Nevertheless, the book was recently dropped as the March pick for Oprah’s Book Club, with Leigh Haber, the books editor at O Magazine, telling Vulture that Winfrey wants to be “really mindful that the selection process doesn’t create noise around the book that will drown out the discussion of the book itself and prevent her from being able to focus on what’s in the book and the author.”
John Bapst Head of School Mel McKay said he had no comment on Russell’s book. McKay began his tenure as head of school in 2007, seven years after Russell attended the school, and he said he has not read the book.
Given its appearance during the #MeToo era, one might expect “My Dark Vanessa” to have a slightly polemical tone. It doesn’t, however, nor is it salacious or exploitative. Rather, it’s a kind of classic literary romance — one whose characters’ actions and motivations are thoroughly taken apart and called into question over the course of its 384 pages.
Vanessa herself is an inscrutable, unreliable narrator, constantly re-evaluating her memories and feelings toward her tumultuous past. Like the novel that Russell says she’s inspired by, Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial but beloved “Lolita,” “My Dark Vanessa” weaves an intoxicating tale of sensual, forbidden romance. But while “Lolita” is written from the perspective of Humbert Humbert, the perpetrator of an abusive relationship with an underage girl, “My Dark Vanessa” is written from the perspective of the victim — a victim who doesn’t initially view herself as a victim, but comes to understand her traumatic past as she gets older and wiser.
“My Dark Vanessa” will be available starting Tuesday wherever books are sold.