The defining event of this book is an affair that the protagonist Vanessa enters into with her 42-year-old English teacher (Mr. Strane) when she is 15 years old. The rest of the book describes how this plays out in her life in a destructive way. He kills himself near the end of the book, when she is 30 or so, a key factor enabling the beginning of her healing.
The book is told entirely from Vanessa's point of view. It is a book that is primarily about her, which is as it should be. She suffers a lot, and I found it a hard book to read on that account. Other readers seem to report it's a hard book because Vanessa is trying to excuse Strane. I guess if he was just raping her and she knew he was evil, that would be easier for them. For me, it's just very hard to read about suffering, whatever the circumstances.
And yet key to Vanessa's struggles is her evaluation of what kind of a man Strane actually is. As a man, I naturally resonate more with the male experience. So who is Strane, really?
Strane is sympathetic enough to make the book interesting. And he truly is a good teacher to most of his students -- he wins awards. But he is, fundamentally, a Very Bad Man with regard to Vanessa -- which makes him fundamentally a Very Bad Man.
Now, to qualify that assessment as best I can... He is not sadistic. He does not set out to harm Vanessa. He does truly love her, as we usually use that word. Abusive husbands typically also love their wives. Like theirs, Strane's is not a wholesome, healthy love, but an awful lot of what passes for love in the lives of ordinary people would not pass that bar either. He acts on his strong desire for the attractive and insightful sophomore in his class -- but let's not forget that a great many ordinary men do unethical things in pursuing their own strong passions for adults.
Evidence suggests Strane is a pedophile. Vanessa tries to correct someone else by saying he is actually an ephebophile since he is acting with girls who are at least 14, and so well into puberty. But pedophilia is a state of mind, and the age of people he acts with does not tell us who he is most attracted to. He likely realizes that relationships with 8-year-olds are impossible because they will not enthusiastically return his affections, will not have much insight on literature, are less able to keep secrets, and would likely get him into even more trouble. Or none of that may be necessary to keep him away from them. He may be genuinely horrified at the idea -- a great many pedophiles are horrified by their attractions. Yet when he begs Vanessa once to say "I love you, Daddy" during sex, or buys her pajamas with a pattern suitable for a younger girl, it suggests his peak attraction is to someone younger. In this respect he resembles the <real-life J.D. Salinger>https://celibatepedos.blogspot.com/2016/11/jd-salinger-celibate-pedophile.html , who pursued girls of age 16 or so as a barely legal compromise, though his strongest attraction was more to age 10. Vanessa recalls with dismay how she was too old for him at 30 or so and he couldn't maintain an erection. This makes far more sense if his primary attraction was to age 8. Vanessa is already on the right shoulder of the bell curve of his attraction at 15 or 16. If a man's peak attraction is to 15, it's far less likely a 30-year-old would be insufficiently attractive.
So he is a pedophile. The only role Vanessa (or the author) gives to his pedophilia is to make him more "other" and more of a bad guy. I am a pedophile and have heard the stories of hundreds of other pedophiles. I would suggest that his pedophilia should make us more sympathetic to him than if he had normal attractions. It starts with the truth that people do not choose their attraction pattern -- they just discover it. Some men find they are gay, even if they desperately do not want to be. Others find they are pedophiles. Given that, it is more understandable why a man is pursuing a 15-year-old if she is nearly the oldest female he is strongly attracted to. If he has a strong attraction to adults and happens to go for a 14-year-old because she is available, that makes him more simply and straightforwardly a selfish bastard.
No one asks what Strane's life was like before, or what it would have been like if he had been a good man and not approached any students. Here are some basics: No love, no satisfying sex, and the need to keep a big secret. If you can manage any sympathy for some poor black man who commits a series of armed robberies, find some sympathy for a pedophile who makes a mistake in line with the human desire for sex and love, even if it is a big mistake.
Strane is very manipulative, though much of it may be unconscious. There is some evidence of him being calculating, as in filing a letter with the school when their relationship begins indicating that Vanessa has a crush on him, to protect against any possible future accusations. Yet I can see this as the reasonable action of a tormented man who at one moment thinks he will not act on his desires (and writes the letter) but in the next finds he is giving in to them. In both states of mind he knows the danger that comes simply from their spending time together.
This book is a strong advertisement for the age of consent. Strane violated the law, but we can hope that a great many men in his position would be deterred by the prospect of prison, and more Vanessas protected from the harm that she suffered. Yes, he has a strong attraction to her, and she has a strong attraction to him, and she is fundamentally willing, but the law says "No!" and for good reason.
It is only after the sexual relationship has begun that Strane spells out how vital it is that this whole thing be kept a secret. That in itself is an unfair burden to put on a 16-year-old. He not only elicits her sympathy by describing what would happen to him, but embellishes considerably on just how bad it would be for her. These discussions don't happen before they have crossed the line into illegal sex. Yet it's not clear if that would have deterred Vanessa anyway. We need an age of consent law. (This may be uncontroversial to most people, but it is a hot topic of debate among pedophiles.)
Vanessa starts by following a pattern that I believe is innate within human females. It's not inevitable, but when circumstances are right, things tend this way. Having reached sexual maturity, a man comes into her life who is smart, accomplished and successful. She bonds with him strongly. In earlier times, this man would be her husband. If marriages are not completely arranged, she would do well to grab a good man instead of having to make due with an inferior one. She would forgive his shortcomings because she loved him deeply. She would soon bear children and enjoy the rewards of motherhood. This is a stable pattern and would not result in any psychological problems in Vanessa. It is, however, a pattern that we as an enlightened society have rejected, having much higher hopes for our girls these days. We want them to get an education, understand life's possibilities, and choose a mate of their own later (if they wish).
But this innate pattern is not at all designed for young teen girls to have temporary relationships that end. Their emotional selves want this to be permanent, even if their thinking side understands at some level that it is unlikely. As their first summer approaches and Strane talks about how things will be after the relationship is over, Vanessa asks why it has to end. Much later she asks if she can be with Strane after she graduates college -- a permanent solution to her obsession with him. He is fundamentally unwilling, because she is now too old. He is also unable because of the need to keep their past relationship a secret.
Why is it Vanessa who responds positively when Strane starts fondling her knee, and the other girls don't? We don't know. Her mother says she was fearless as an ice skater. She is the scholarship student at the fancy prep school, and a high school English teacher may (at some deep level) feel like a pretty good catch to someone whose origins aren't so far from "white trash". She at one point says that her body got her involved in a relationship that her mind didn't agree to.
The sex is painful to read about. She comes easily when given oral sex, noting the first time that it's better than when she does it herself. Yet even when she is yearning for Strane, she never mentions anticipating her own orgasm -- she just wants sex. What's more, for all of Strane's insistence that it's vital that Vanessa consent to everything that's happening, she is crying when he first penetrates her vaginally -- the most flagrant violation of consent, but only one of a great many. She never seems to connect with pleasure at the act of intercourse itself, and for all of their later encounters she is dissociating. She wants Strane, people who love each other have sex, and so if he has sex with her it's a sign he loves her and that's good. That seems like the basics of how she views the situation. She feels helpless in the situation. I trust that this version of male-female power relations is common in society, though in the social circles I run in, it has been much closer to <"Helplessly Hoping">https://genius.com/Crosby-stills-and-nash-helplessly-hoping-lyrics .
There are some important parallels between this book and <"Tiger, Tiger">https://celibatepedos.blogspot.com/2014/10/tiger-tiger-subtle-sex-abuse-memoir.html by Margaux Fragoso, which is a memoir rather than fiction. Margaux's man Peter similarly causes great harm without intending to. Margaux is captivated by him and unable to really escape until he kills himself when she is in her early 20s. Margaux herself wrote to Virtuous Pedophiles, supportive of our mission, and corresponded with us before her tragic death to cancer in 2017. She was just 38. She reported that going on tour for the book was extremely difficult, as everyone wanted her to label Peter as a monster and portray herself as a victim -- the simple story. It was to her far more complicated. Peter was also a positive influence in her life, given that her own home life was very impoverished. Vanessa is seriously hooked on Strane. For most of the book, she resists the idea that she was abused because she has to believe that he loves her. And since she loves him, he must be worth loving.
Another theme running through the book is the other allegations against Strane, focused around a girl named Taylor, who has gone public and urged others to come forward. It turns out that all that Strane did to Taylor was to massage her knee as they sat behind his desk in class. She complained, and was made to transfer out of the class. But she claims the experience ruined her. I am frankly inclined to say, "Give me a break!" Having a teacher massage your knee may be unpleasant, but it's hardly the end of the world. Making an accusation and being not just believed but punished for it could be worse, but I just refuse to accept that it ruined her. Vanessa, in contrast, was put through a truly excruciating series of contortions, including expulsion from the school, all in the service of protecting Strane.
We don't have at hand an "experimental control" version of either Vanessa or Taylor. How would their lives have turned out without the event in question? Vanessa muses about whether she might be just as much of a mess if her first relationship had been with someone her own age, but the author presents it more as another bit of the pathology of self-doubt in Vanessa's mind. We don't know much about Taylor's circumstances.
Having drafted my own review, I read a few reviews by others. Reviewers are pained and frustrated that Vanessa takes so very long to realize she has been abused and that Strane is just plain evil. To them, there is nothing remotely positive to say about Strane. They speculate that in the many years it took Russell to write the book, she might have been struggling with her own reaction to a similar situation in her past. That isn't impossible but it is disrespectful. Russell has constructed a fictional pair, Vanessa and Strane, and if the believable complexity does not fit neatly into a #MeToo ideology, that's the problem of the ideologues.
I am struck by how the reviewers label Strane as a classic predator, calculating every step of the way. I disagree. When people have strong crushes, some do make soaring analogies about their loved one's hair, or offer them books or songs. Sometimes it's downright embarrassing to recall. Others have noted that when a man does things to try to win the affection of a child, it's called "grooming". When it's an adult, we simply call those same things "dating". Strane genuinely feels that both she and he are dark souls. A classic, shrewd predator would also take much more care to keep the relationship secret, instead of letting Vanessa spend just about every bit of her free time in his classroom.
Strane is a Very Bad Man. But he did indeed love Vanessa, in his own way. And the harm was manslaughter, not murder. And yet the victim of manslaughter is just as dead.