The Uses of Enchantment
By Heidi Julavits. Doubleday, $24.95.
When she was 16, Mary Veal left her rain-delayed field hockey game at her upper-crust New England girls academy and disappeared. She returned a few weeks later, claiming she was abducted by a man who often watched her and the other girls from a dark car parked by a nearby cemetery. She and her family were naturally never the same. But an ambitious pop psychologist, serving as Mary’s therapist, writes a book about the case, claiming Mary faked the abduction and was never sexually abused by a kidnapper. Frighteningly, her mother is delighted, thinking it preferable to have a first-rate liar as a daughter. Anything is better than the shame of a rape victim.
The action of the novel begins at the funeral of Mary’s mother, some 14 years later. Mary has returned from her life on the West Coast to West Salem, the fictional Boston suburb where she grew up and her two sisters and father still live. But Julavits interrupts with an account of “what might have happened” when Mary was hypothetically abducted, and with notes from the therapy sessions between Mary and the shrink who would eventually betray her.
Julavits is unrelenting in the way she piles on layer after layer in what is, quite literally, a psychological novel. Mary’s blue-blooded New England family has a history of accused witchery, and Mary’s mom is more than a little obsessed with clearing her lineage of the black mark (lest we forget the sexual overtones of all that witch hunting). Freud’s famous Dora study, in which the father of modern psychology so kindly dismissed his female patient’s claims that she was sexually abused, frames Mary’s ordeal. Freud, 17th-century New England paranoia and contemporary scapegoating and exploitation: It’s all here in less than 300 pages. Luckily, so acute and funny is the writing that Julavits never comes across as heavy-handed in her exploration of those big themes. —Jonathan Messinger