Book Review: NSFW: a novel by Isabel Kaplan

Gut-wrenching, clever, and undeniably 😉 honest.

Isabel Kaplan graduated from Harvard and holds an MFA in creative writing from NYU. She is the author of the national bestselling young adult novel Hancock Park and a co-founder of Project 100, an organization launched after the 2016 election to support progressive women running for Congress. She previously worked in TV drama development at Fox Broadcasting Company. Isabel was born and raised in Los Angeles.

I love how real this book, NSFW (Not Safe For Work) felt. Having personally experienced a somewhat similar environment as the book’s anonymous protagonist, it was easy for me to picture the day-to-day rat race—bullshit bureaucracy, toxicity, and harassment—in the office setting, which is so effortlessly described throughout. If you’ve worked in corporate America, you’ve probably experienced or at least witnessed some level of coercion and/or complicity. And for such a serious subject matter, Kaplan lifted the tension with moments of dark humor, allowing the reader to take a much-needed breath. One of the most disturbing relationships in the book was between the protagonist and her mother. A toxic bond filled with emotional manipulation, invalidation, and gaslighting—something that affected the core of the MC. Keeping her mother happy is a full-time job, one that at times, overshadows her own sense of self-awareness, and fogs her ability to advocate for what she truly wants.

I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve personally connected to over the last two years, and NSFW is now one of them. I rank it alongside two of my favorites: Luster by Raven Leilani and Animal by Lisa Taddeo—two of my auto-buy authors.

So many scenes stick out but one that touched my heart describes the MC searching through boxes in her father’s garage when she comes across old home videos. She watches one of herself as a child in which her mother teaches her how to mount a plastic blue rocking horse to show her Nana “what a great rider” she is. She stumbles around the toy, timid at first until her mother successfully coaxes her on. After which she’s rocking back and forth saying, “See! I didn’t break anything! I’m not breaking anything!” I found this scene so symbolic and indicative of a child raised in the clutches of a narcissistic parent. A child who walks on eggshells and quickly learns to sacrifice her own needs in order to keep the peace. (A theme echoed in every chapter of NSFW.) But in order to retain a sense of her own moral principles, she must decide if silence is worth success, or if speaking the truth will break recurring toxic patterns and finally set her free.

5/5 ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend to readers who enjoy dark subjects in a corporate setting, compelling female protagonists, electrifying prose, and psychological themes.

Published July 5th, 2022

Synopsis:

From the outside, the unnamed protagonist in NSFW appears to be the vision of success. She has landed an entry-level position at a leading TV network that thousands of college grads would kill for. And sure, she has much to learn. The daughter of a prominent feminist attorney, she grew up outside the industry. But she’s resourceful and hardworking. What could go wrong?

At first, the high adrenaline work environment motivates her. Yet as she climbs the ranks, she confronts the reality of creating change from the inside. Her points only get attention when echoed by male colleagues; she hears whispers of abuse and sexual misconduct. Her mother says to keep her head down until she’s the one in charge―a scenario that seems idealistic at best, morally questionable at worst. When her personal and professional lives collide, threatening both the network and her future, she must decide what to protect: the career she’s given everything for or the empowered woman she claims to be.

Fusing page-turning prose with dark humor and riveting commentary on the truths of starting out professionally, Isabel Kaplan’s NSFW is an unflinching exploration of the gray area between empowerment and complicity. The result is a stunning portrait of what success costs in today’s patriarchal world, asking us: Is it ever worth it?

Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

A compelling read that sent shivers down my spine.

This book was on my TBR for so long and I don’t know why. I’d heard mixed reviews—overall great—but most included trigger warnings. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed it and found specific parts interesting, particularly the protagonist’s struggle to recognize and categorize the abuse she endured, and how she continues to carry around the trauma from her past. “In someone else’s mouth the word turns ugly and absolute,” she argues. “It swallows up everything that happened.” I rated it a five-star read due to the originality and depth of the characters, and for the beautiful execution of such a dark subject matter. To those interested in the bottom line, this book isn’t a light read and it won’t make you feel good. It’s dark, complex, and thought-provoking. So be warned.

Kate Elizabeth Russell is an American author. Her debut novel, My Dark Vanessa, was published in 2020 and became a national bestseller.

The story is split between two alternating timelines from the protagonist’s perspective. The current timeline establishes her routine, working a desk job at a hotel in the city and drinking and/or getting stoned in her spare time. The past timeline conveys adolescence and her budding relationship with a forty-two-year-old English professor. The chapters, although on the longer side, flow effortlessly, and I didn’t once find the pace slow, or catch myself wanting to stop reading.

From the very beginning of the book, themes of consent, complicity, and trauma vs memory are clearly depicted. We are first introduced to Vanessa as she’s getting ready for work while monitoring comments on a Facebook post from a former student accusing Jacob Strane—her old English professor—of sexual assault. We know Vanessa still keeps in touch with him. We also know her memories of what transpired between them all those years ago are foggy at best, recategorized as something other than abuse. More of a romantic retelling of a pedophile and his victim. Not only was she abused at the hands of someone who should have protected her, but now she’s suffering because of that abuse, caught in a trauma cycle, finding other ways to cope including excessive drinking, smoking marijuana, and engaging in degrading sexual acts. When Taylor, another victim, speaks out on Facebook against Strane, it triggers Vanessa to reach out to her abuser. And as the timelines unfold, her past becomes shockingly clear, and Vanessa is forced to choose between complicit silence and finally facing the ugly truth.

The cast of characters are so different I had no issues following along with the story. Each one well fleshed out and different from the last. Jacob Strane’s character was the most disturbing, especially reading of the manipulative ways he minimized his actions, groomed and gaslit Vanessa, making her believe she was the one responsible for allowing their ‘relationship’ to transpire. “I never would have done it if you weren’t so willing,” he’s noted saying. The most painful thing about reading this book is how the author makes it inevitably clear to the reader how much of a predator Strane is, and yet, Vanessa (past and present) cannot recognize it. She often sides with him and feels complicit, as a subconscious way of deflecting the truth. She was a victim of abuse. This is perfectly executed through the use of first person point of view, pulling the reader into Vanessa’s twisted psyche.

So many scenes in the book haunt me, but probably none more than the first night Vanessa goes to stay at Strane’s house. All the details clearly signal to the reader actions of a sexual predator, but which Vanessa finds romantic and thoughtful. It’s terrifying. The food he bought for her: ice cream, chips, soda. She packs black silky negligee of her mother’s to wear, while he prefers her to wear a childlike pijama set with a pink strawberry print. What kept me reading was hope. Hope that Vanessa would see the light, look inward, and realize what happened to her wasn’t right. Hope that she would find solace in knowing she wasn’t alone. The ending was sad and yet satisfying.

5/5 ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy dark academia, dual timelines, compelling female narrators, and dark, complex psychological themes.

Published January 23rd, 2020

Synopsis:

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?