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Heidi Julavits’ THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT

Doubleday, October 2006, 368 pages, $24.95Doubleday, October 2006, 368 pages, $24.95Hello Scheherazade… Few works of modern literary fiction cause much surprise, but The Uses of Enchantment is an exception. Heidi Julavits' third solo novel is a thrilling read that leaves the reader guessing, as Julavits details the superlative yet ordinary story of one Mary Veal.

On November 7, 1985, in the wealthy town of West Salem, Massachusetts, sixteen-year-old Mary is abducted after field hockey practice at her posh all-girls school. When she returns after a month, her social-climbing mother would rather have her viewed as a hyper-inventive liar than a rape-victim. The girl's self-serving therapist, Dr. Hammer, writes a critically acclaimed book detailing Mary's faked abduction, turning Mary into her generation's Freudian Dora. But in a series of maneuvers, Mary proves to be the undoing of Dr. Hammer, as she becomes key witness in a malpractice suit against him.

Her mother's death, exactly fourteen years after Mary's disappearance, brings Mary back to West Salem from her self-imposed exile in Oregon. Icily received by her family, Mary grapples with the past, haphazardly seeking redemption and a truce with ghosts, living and dead.

The book is divided into pithy quasi-chapters, some using an omniscient narrator and others the nervous voice of Mary's therapist. Through these different perspectives, the reader uncovers what might have happened. Almost immediately, it appears that Mary's account of her disappearance shares many details with Freud's Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. Even more damning, the events and details of Mary's tale seem to be a historical reenactment of the book, The Abduction and Captivity of Dorcas Hobbs by the Malygnant Savages of the Kenebek, in which a pilgrim girl abducted by the Kenebek tribe later accuses her rescuer of witchery. The reader is left wondering whether Mary orchestrated her own abduction, and whether she's a victim or a predatory Lolita.

Mary is a girl with frightening precociousness. Voracious and manipulative, she plunges Dr. Hammer into utter confusion as she changes details and personalities with each therapy session. Yet, as a thirty-year-old in 1999, the predatory Mary becomes meek and compromising. One wonders if the author is toying with the notion of power-the helplessness that comes with maturation, of becoming an adult; the blandness of knowing that some rules must be obeyed. A child is invincibly potent because he or she simply doesn't know better. Is it disappointing then, that this frightening child becomes a perceptive yet burnt-out adult?

The Uses of Enchantment left me thoroughly impressed with Julavits' writing. Her sentences are sleekly spun-both her delight and expertise is evident in the quality of her observations and the exquisite context she provides for her wry, often ponderous prose. Her writing style is so natural that what comes through are her powerful observations, such as the one in which kissing someone is compared to vomiting: "Kissing a person, she understood then, was not about desire, kissing a person was just a way to make them stop talking."

Mary is very aptly called Scheherazade by her abductor, because she spins wonderful tales to protect herself. But from what? As a grown-up Mary realizes the falsehood of the notion that Scheherazade told stories in order to avoid harm, since "stories were a way of asking for it-to be killed, to be kissed." The image that is left with the reader is not of the adult Mary, but of a sad precocious Scheherazade, cognizant that her powers will soon be forfeited.

Heidi Julavits is the author of two previous novels, The Mineral Palace and The Effect of Living Backwards, as well as a collaborative book, Hotel Andromeda, with the artist Jenny Gage. She is a founding editor of Believer, and her writings have appeared in Esquire, Time, The New York Times, and McSweeney's among other places. She lives in Manhattan and Maine.

Elizabeth ChoElizabeth Cho received her BA in business and MA in art & archaeology from Brown University. An ad executive by day, art consultant by night, she brings together her starving artist friends with her yuppie friends in a modern day salon way. She assists young artists in the beginning of their careers while helping young collectors develop individual tastes in art. Her other great love in life is writing. Her short stories have been published on 5_trope and other literary magazines. Please visit her website Au Currant where she discusses what is au courant in art, culture, and literature. To contact Elizabeth e-mail:echo@kgbbar.com.
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