November 2006

Melissa Albert


The Uses of Enchantment by Heidi Julavits

“What’s the difference between one’s memory and one’s imagination in the end?” The question is posed by a man behind the wheel of a gray Mercedes, an eerily complacent kidnapper trying to justify the recently stolen girl in his passenger seat. In Heidi Julavits’s third novel, The Uses of Enchantment, this thief and his quarry enact the drama of abduction in a fearlessly demoralized way -- after all, the recollections of the enchanted are indiscernible from lies.

The girl is Mary Veal. A plain 16-year-old who harbored a fascination with the case studies of abducted girls, Mary had done little to distinguish herself from the other pleat-skirted students of West Salem’s Semmering Academy. Then, in the autumn of 1985, she skipped out on field hockey practice and climbed into a stranger’s car, dropping an ominous hockey stick into the gutter behind her. She went missing for nearly two months. On her return, she claimed to remember nothing beyond the fact of her abduction. Whether this kidnapping occurred or whether it and the kidnapper are the girl’s invention is the book’s central pivot. The account of her disappearance is relayed in chapters titled “What Might Have Happened,” one of three plot lines that appear in non-successive chapters throughout the book.

While an unremarkable girl, “neither pretty nor not pretty,” she may have possessed a certain, abductable charm. In the way that youth enchants, Mary’s homeliness was obscured by the childish charm of her dirty hair and preternaturally dirty mouth. But what initially unfolds between her and her captor has little to do with sex, and more to do with an illicit fiction they build between them. The compelling and highly articulate “abduction” elicits a surprisingly layered response, as Julavits’s account neither victimizes nor judges. And though the bitter, hyper-mature sass mouth of young Mary (with her captor and later with her shrink) seems way above the head of an average 16-year-old, it crackles with nerves and rage, showing her constant, uneasy transit between victim and predator.

When the taciturn Mary returns, found sitting in a rain shelter on Semmering’s playing fields, she undergoes medical testing that proves she isn’t a virgin. Her mother sends her to the mealy-mouthed Dr. Hammer, a stereotyped nightmare of a psychoanalyst, to find out whether she’s a raped girl or a slutty liar. Her mother’s preference is clear: a lie will be far less destructive to her social standing than a rape.

The therapy sessions, revealed through the notes of Dr. Hammer, are exhausting. He and Mary engage in terse, combative conversation. Mary is alternately sullen and challenging, as she weaves truth with fiction, swipes her finger in obscene rings around the innards of a compact, and makes cagey illusions to her captor, “K.” Dr. Hammer is the eventual author of Miriam: The Disappearance of a New England Girl, a thinly disguised account of his sessions with Mary. Based partly on similarities between the details of her story and that of Freud’s Dora -- coughing fits, metaphoric dreams, the compact trick -- and partly on the self-serving meddling of Mary’s mother, he decides she’s lying. The theory and syndrome he assigns to her story, effectively blinding himself to its possible veracity, become the backbone of his potentially career-making book. By their final meeting, Dr. Hammer has wholly shucked the shell of Mary from the kernel of his theory.

The Mary Veal of the book’s present is a dissipated 30-year-old, a wayward daughter returning to West Salem for her mother’s funeral. It is 14 years exactly from the day she disappeared, a coincidence assumed by all to be another bid for attention from the aging Lost Girl. The declining years of her mother’s life were spent trying to absolve family forebear Abigail Lake, a woman hanged for witchcraft, of guilt. Mary’s mother’s deliberate withdrawal from her daughter’s life is in marked contrast to her pointless obsession with a dusty relative’s legal standing. In fact, Mary is denied a final audience with her mother, and the closure she’d hoped would override years of growing estrangement.

In limbo, she searches out some left-behind sign of her mother’s stifled forgiveness. Finally, and against her better judgment, she seeks out the profiteering, abrasive Roz Biedelman, a feminist shrink who, years before, took Dr. Hammer to court for his denial of what she insisted was a real abduction. Roz ends up being surprisingly helpful, having been the unlikely confidante of Mary’s mother’s last days.

The segments following the grown-up Mary can feel workmanlike, though often hilarious. Mary’s wretched sisters, and the boozy aunt who attributes her emotions to her poodle, are spot-on. The eldest sister, Regina, a would-be poet and stone bitch, is insanely proprietary, enraged by the loss or inadvertent loan of a childhood bicycle, a pompon hat, or a dented, half-empty box of tampons. Gaby is a less focused presence, only half-heartedly mean, and by comparison almost bearable. Between them and their vacant father, Mary finds no solace in the past. Her new life out in the formless West, complete with mediocre job and iffy vegan boyfriend, is barely preferable. The girl who, as her case file once revealed, “disappeared many times without her needing to go anywhere,” has remained dispensable into adulthood.

The real enchantment lies with her indecipherable younger self. Julavits’s refusal to pity Mary keeps the book and its central mystery free of pathos or manipulative intent. This calculated approach lends even the humor a painful edge, and allows a true chill to pervade an unsettling, smartly drawn kidnapping, the players of which can almost convince you that they weren’t to blame.

The Uses of Enchantment by Heidi Julavits
ISBN: 0385513232
354 pages