One Autumn day in 1985, sixteen-year-old Mary Veal vanishes from her Massachusetts prep school. A few weeks later she reappears unharmed and with little memory of what happened to her--or at least little that she is willing to share. Was Mary abducted, or did she fake her disappearance? This question haunts Mary's family, her psychologist, even Mary herself. Weaving together three narratives, The Uses of Enchantment conjures a spell in which the hallucinatory power of a young woman’s sexuality, and her desire to wield it, has devastating consequences for all involved.
On November 7, 1985, Mary Veal, 16, a not especially distinguished upper-middle-class girl, disappears from New England's Semmering Academy. A month later she reappears at Semmering, claiming amnesia, but hinting at abduction and ravishment. The events in Believer editor Julavits's third, beautifully executed novel take place on three levels: one, dedicated to "what might have happened," is the story of the supposedly blank interval; another is dedicated to the inevitable therapeutic aftermath, as Mary's therapist, Dr. Hammer, tries to discover whether Mary is lying, either about the abduction or the amnesia; and the present of the novel, which revolves around the funeral of Mary's mother, Paula, in 1999. There, Mary feels not only the hostility of her sisters, Regina (an unsuccessful poet) and Gaby (a disheveled lesbian) but Paula's posthumous hostility. Or is that an illusion? This structure delicately balances between gothic and comic, allowing Julavits to play variations on Mary's life and on the '80s moral panic of repressed memory syndromes and wild fears of child abuse. While Julavits (The Effect of Living Backwards) sometimes lets an overheated style distract from her central story, as its various layers coalesce, the mystery of what did happen to Mary Veal will enthrall the reader to the very last page.