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The Uses of Enchantment A Novel Heidi Julavits Doubleday: 356 pp., $24.95

October 15, 2006|Susan Kandel | Susan Kandel is the author of the Cece Caruso mysteries, including "I Dreamed I Married Perry Mason," "Not a Girl Detective" and, most recently, "Shamus in the Green Room."

"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 -- a significant leap ahead of her second, "The Effect of Living Backwards" -- is entertaining, devastating and as slippery as a strand of its anti-heroine's lank hair.

Here is what might have happened late in the afternoon of Nov. 7, 1985, in the suburb of West Salem, Mass.: Mary Veal, an otherwise ordinary 16-year-old girl, bland to the point of invisibility (with average grades and average looks), disappears after field hockey practice at the all-girls Semmering Academy, only to return several weeks later claiming to suffer from amnesia and alluding cryptically to having been ravished.

After several therapy sessions, the aptly named Dr. Hammer decides that Mary -- who is obsessed with a 17th century narrative of a girl taken by Indians, as well as an infamous Semmering alum named Bettina Spencer who once accused a teacher of sorcery -- faked her abduction. This, of course, works out best for everyone: The mother gets a daughter who's a liar instead of a rape victim (a better sell to the ladies who lunch); the therapist (ever mindful of the need to protect the innocent) gets a bestselling, career-saving book he calls "Miriam: The Disappearance of a New England Girl."

But what if that isn't what happened that cold, dark day? What if Mary is, in fact, an extraordinary teenager, a middle sister loath to be middling, the descendant of a real Salem witch, a precocious reader with a wild and dark imagination? What if Mary, calling herself Ida, seduced a man with longish hair, a bad history and a cigarette case monogrammed with the single letter "K"?

Those versed in psychoanalytic theory will recognize these names as talismans taken from Sigmund Freud's fragmentary case study of Dora -- fragmentary because Dora, whose real name was Ida Bauer, famously broke off treatment as a result of Freud's insistence that her rejection of Herr K.'s sexual advances was a sign of hysteria. (Ida was essentially handed over to Herr K. by her father, who was dallying with Frau K.)

Where "The Effect of Living Backwards" was to some extent a commentary on Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking-Glass," "The Uses of Enchantment" is, in large part, a rewriting of Dora's erotic life as written first by Dora's biological bad daddy, then by the bad daddy of psychoanalysis himself, Freud. But where psychoanalysis offers the reassurance of truth (a cough is a displacement of genital pleasure; a jewel box represents virginity), Julavits explores ambiguity and paradox. Does consciousness of one's innocence betoken its loss? To what ends do adolescent girls wield their sexuality? Why must they be punished for it?

As chapters alternate between the voices of the young Mary, the therapist treating her after the "incident" and the adult Mary who has come home following her mother's death in 1999, answers dart in and out of view, making the truth of what happened that fall of 1985 at once tantalizingly close and ever more remote.

Julavits borrows her title from Bruno Bettelheim's classic treatise on fairy tales. Like Bettelheim, she believes in the power of stories to both protect and goad us along the treacherous path to adulthood. Bettelheim, however, was concerned with the stories we are told; Julavits is concerned with the ones we tell -- and she is well aware that the storyteller's gift cuts like a double-edged sword. Scheherazade, declares the young Mary in a sudden fit of insight, had it all wrong: "Scheherazade was asking for it. Stories were a way of asking for it -- to be killed, to be kissed."

Indeed, when the boundary between memory and imagination is blurred -- as in the narrative trajectory extending from Ida to Dora to Mary to Miriam -- somebody has to pay the price, and it's unlikely to be the one with "Herr" in front of his name.

Julavits is at her most profound when she explores the relationships between women: the tentacular grip of mother love and the equivocal attachments of sisterhood. (Her sister, to Mary: "I mean it's not your fault that I dislike you. I mean it is your fault, but not entirely. Anyway. Fine. I dislike you.") She shows that intense looks exchanged between girls have nothing to do with homoeroticism and everything to do with the erotics of inspiration. One of the novel's most poignant moments occurs when the adult Mary finally gets a glimpse of Bettina, nibbling on a chocolate, only to realize that she "was too old to locate in another flawed being the seeds of her own most impossible person." In psychoanalytic terms, this signifies the passage into normative femininity; for Julavits, it is a heartbreaking loss.

"Cocoa powder accumulated in the corners of her mouth like dried blood," Julavits writes of the once-terrifying Bettina, who had burned down the school library.

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