The Uses of Enchantment

julavitsThe Short Version: When she was 17, Mary Veal disappeared for several weeks. The story she spins upon her return baffles psychologists and her family – and it’s not until her mother’s death many years later that the truth begins to come out about what really happened while she was gone.

The Review: Some books are November books, not October books. It’s an easy enough mistake to make, but you know them the minute you start them. There’s something a little darker, a little colder – you can feel that the sun goes down early in these books. The Uses of Enchantment is one of these November books.

There’s an inescapable sense of New England in winter in this novel, which (yes) comes from the setting and time of year but also from the coldness of the characters and the story that binds them. This is a story that does not want to let anyone in – its readers or its characters. Mary, as a 17 year old acting out, disappears for a period of time and it is unclear where she went. Was she kidnapped? Raped? Stolen by witches? The big questions surrounding her disappearance are left up in the air throughout the novel, described only in a series of chapters entitled “What Might Have Happened” and given all the uncertainty that the title implies. The narrative here is convincing as far as possible events go – but it’s less than compelling, lacking the Nabokovian tension a reader expects from an older man picking up a young girl. I found myself skipping through these parts at a steady clip, perhaps because I knew that it was only what might have happened.

This narrative trick – and that of the Notes written by Mary’s questionably-suited psychiatrist – reminded me of Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, a novel from my high school reading that still astounds me when I thinka bout it. In that book, several possible stories are illuminated throughout as to what happened to the main character’s wife – and the reader is never given a definitive answer. Julavits seems to be striking for a similar goal, but a decision near the end of the book makes things go from being interestingly obscure to just plain muddled. Suddenly, we’re given a solid hint about the validity (or lack thereof) of those chapters, which all tell a single narrative instead of several disparate ones. Combined with a lot of mentioned-then-immediately-shrugged-aside pop psychology and head feints towards witchcraft, and I found myself wondering what I was doing in this novel about 2/3rds of the way through.

The characters aren’t particularly interesting, although that’s what makes them so good: Regina is the bitchy older sister, Gaby the wild-child younger girl, and Mary is the plain middle child. It was refreshing, I’ll admit, to see a novel that deals with a kidnap narrative center around an utterly “ordinary” main character. It’s Mary’s ordinariness that makes her so surprising to everyone around her, in fact – as well as to herself. There were moments where I wish the psychology had gone deeper, where I wish we could’ve gotten to see just what made her do what she did… because I think there are a lot of young girls who might do similar things.

A colleague of mine said something interesting after a tragedy just about a year ago: “it is very hard to be a young man in this world.” And while I think that’s very true (I was one), I think it’s plenty hard to be a young woman too. One of the two best things about this novel is how frighteningly well Julavits captures the mercurial attitude of a young girl – and the searching curiosity that comes with being a teenager. Your sexuality is starting to bloom, you’re starting to push against social confines, you’re starting to wonder about what comes next… and all of that gets mixed up rather wonderfully here, with the other best thing (Julavits’ wonderfully witty voice) making it go down nice.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with Heidi very tangentially at the most recent Bellwether (a company I produce with in Brooklyn) and she astounded me with her quick wit and what I think can only be called a brash, sassy sense of humor. And that comes out so strongly in her writing, which I was happy to see. A women’s support group goes by the acronym RWANDA, a dog is both mockingly and lovingly referred to as far more sentient than it actually is, and even little lines like “stupid people are the new smart people” made me cackle.

Rating: 3 out of 5. I just wish that it had all added up to… something more. Anything more, really. The end of the novel is frustrating in that it not only doesn’t reveal anything terribly concrete about what actually happened, but it doesn’t really resolve too much in the present either. There are the usual, expected nods to belated coming-of-age and sisterly bonding and all that… but it all somehow felt wrong. There was a sense, instead, that the greater mystery was almost too dense to parse – but that doesn’t make for a satisfying read. And the hints of witchcraft, etc, made me hope for something else entirely from this book – but that’s maybe my own fault, certainly not the author’s.

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