Previewing the 2006 Texas Book Festival


The Uses of Enchantment

by Heidi Julavits

Doubleday, 368 pp., $24.95

The title may conjure something a little pretty-pony – or, more to the point, Bruno Bettelheim's appreciation of fairy tales – but Heidi Julavits' Gordian rendering of a maybe-abduction in 1985 West Salem counters as a dark, even hostile, take on the devastating power of the adolescent female. The conflicting account of the evening 17-year-old Mary Veal disappears and the weeks that pass before she resurfaces – claiming she was put under a spell and kidnapped – is explored, in alternating chapters and time frames: via her dubious therapist's notes; her own adult version, on the eve of her estranged mother's funeral; and dreamlike passages filed (rather unhelpfully) under "What Might Have Happened," in which Mary and her would-be captor are presented as the girl and the man.

In her acknowledgements, Julavits cheekily cops to an agenda ("I would like to acknowledge the therapists whose priceless inspiration was purchased at great hourly cost"), and indeed, the mental-health industry gets a beating in the form of its representatives, the feminist Roz Biedelman and her hacky reclamation therapy (in which patients learn to "reclaim" the narrative of their lives) and Mary's therapist, Dr. Hammer, who spies publication potential in Mary's case. The Uses of Enchantment's scope is impressively far-reaching, drawing from the Salem witch trials and Freud's Dora: A Fragment of an Analysis of a Case in Hysteria, and Julavits' eye for the odd detail can be eloquently rendered, although the authenticity of voice is sometimes sacrificed for a nice turn of phrase ("her knees wipering back and forth ... a constellation of blemishes worried into scabs" is lovely language, to be sure, but rather jars when delivered by Mary's unsentimental, Freudian lapdog of a therapist).

Mary's characterization suffers from a certain muzziness (a symptom of having no less than five incarnations, I think), leaving instead a deftly drawn orbit of women to take the stage – a boozy aunt, vicious sisters, New England spinsters, and dear old dead Mum, who'd rather her daughter be branded a liar than a rape victim. Julavits is at her truculent best when plumbing the ways in which these women influence and "infect" one another.

Saturday, Oct. 28, 8pm

Gallery at the Continental Club

The Lolita Update: The Romantic Devastations of Youth in Fiction

Mark Binelli, Mark Z. Danielewski, Cristina Henriquez, Heidi Julavits, Marisha Pessl; Emcee: Sarah Hepola

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