three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
26-Jan-Feb-2007
user_rating: 
0

A-The Uses of EnchantmentAfter field hockey practice one afternoon in November 1985, 16-year-old Mary Veal disappears from her New England school. When she returns a month later, she claims to have forgotten all details of her disappearance, including a possible abduction and rape. The first section, "What Might Have Happened," circles around the events of Mary’s missing month. In "Notes," Mary’s therapist tries to uncover whether Mary faked her amnesia and instead referred to a 17th-century girl kidnapped by Indians. Finally, in "Boston," which takes place in 1999, Mary tries to come to terms with the death of her estranged mother, a descendent of a Salem witch, and her own past.
Doubleday. 356 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0385513232

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Uses of Enchantment is a technical marvel: a novel of ideas that moves with the speed and inevitability of a freight train. Equal parts rumination on feminine sexuality and girl-in-peril thriller, Heidi Julavits’ third novel … is entertaining, devastating and as slippery as a strand of its anti-heroine’s lank hair." Susan Kandel

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"These ‘What Might Have Happened’ sections are masterfully done, alternately chilling and pathetic, and Julavits adds and subtracts just enough details to keep you off balance and guessing. … Julavits also has fun with her portrayals of a severely noxious and dysfunctional family and the small-town New England culture of hysteria and repression." Brad Zellar

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] riveting, at times deeply funny, disturbing book. … For all of its intellectual gamesmanship, The Uses of Enchantment is an unflinching and moving tribute to its protagonist." Julie Wittes Schlack

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As the three narratives come together, the book tightens into a crisis of storytelling—a dark vaudeville in which teenage girls know very well what is expected of them and act it out as a way of testing their own power, and in which tales of abuse substitute for one another like metaphors. … There’s a neat puzzle-box quality to the way Julavits sets forth these themes without ever really resolving them." Emily Nussbaum

Seattle Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Certainly Julavits targets shrinks in her novel, portraying them as self-serving, single-minded freaks, not as interested in healing as they are in advancing their own ideas/careers. … In the end, she pulls it all together, sort of. But it’s too little, too late." Valerie Ryan

San Francisco Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"Wrapped in references to Freud and witches, it is essentially a psychodrama about a troubled mother-daughter relationship and a duel between the daughter and her therapist. … Making the abduction chapters hypothetical, however, seems a misguided attempt to obfuscate a story that could use a few more shreds of clarity to offset the webs of deceit her characters spin." Heller McAlpin

Critical Summary

There is varied critical reaction to Heidi Julavits’s third novel, which addresses memory, psychological subversion, hysteria, and mother-daughter relationships, but reviewers liked it better than her previous work, The Effect of Living Backwards ( 2.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2003). The novel takes its title from Bruno Bettelheim’s 1976 study exploring the effects of fairy tales on children and its inspiration from Freud’s Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria and the Salem witch trials. Enchantment’s fans cited Julavits’s novel as entertaining, chilling, and emotionally wrought; certainly, it addresses serious issues about memory and reality. A few reviewers, however, thought the novel too clever and ambiguous to be enjoyable to the average reader.