The Uses of Enchantment: A Novel

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9780385513234: The Uses of Enchantment: A Novel

In late afternoon on November 7, 1985, sixteen-year-old Mary Veal was abducted after field hockey practice at her all-girls New England prep school.

Or was she?

A few weeks later an unharmed Mary reappears as suddenly and mysteriously as she disappeared, claiming to have little memory of what happened to her. Her socially ambitious mother, a compelling if frosty woman descended from a Salem witch, is concerned that Mary has somehow been sullied by the experience and sends her to therapy with a psychologist named Dr. Hammer.

Mary turns out to be a cagey and difficult patient. Dr. Hammer begins to suspect thatMary concocted her tale of abduction when he discovers its parallels with a seventeenth-century narrative of a girl who was abducted by Indians and who caused her rescuer to be hanged as a witch. Hammer, eager to further his professional reputation, decides to write a book about Mary’s faked abduction, a project her mother sanctions, because she'd rather her daughter be a liar than a rape victim.

Fifteen years later, Mary has returned to Boston for her mother's funeral. Her abduction—real or imagined—has tainted many lives, including her own. When Mary finds a suggestive letter sent to her mother, she suspects her mother planned a reconciliation before her death. Thus begins a quest that requires Mary to revisit the people and places in her past.

The Uses of Enchantment weaves a spell in which the reader sees how the extraordinary power of a young woman’s sexuality, and the desire to wield it, have a devastating effect on all involved. The riveting cat-and-mouse power games between doctor and patient, and between abductor and abductee, are gradually, dreamily revealed, along with the truth about what actually happened in 1985.

Heidi Julavits is in full command of her considerable gifts and has crafted a dazzling narrative sure to garner her further acclaim as one of the best novelists working today.

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About the Author:

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, McSweeney’s among other places. She lives in Manhattan and Maine.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

What Might Have Happened

NOVEMBER 7, 1985
The following might have happened on a late-fall afternoon in the Boston suburb of West Salem. The afternoon in question was biting enough to suggest the early possibility of snow. The cloud cover made it seem later than the actual time of 3:35 p.m.

The girl was one of many girls in field hockey skirts, sweatpants, and ski shells, huddled together in the green lean-to emblazoned with Semmering Academy's scripted S. It had rained all morning and all afternoon; though the rain had temporarily ceased, the playing field remained a patchwork of brown grass and mud bordered by a rain-swept chalk line. Last month a Semmering wing had torn an ankle tendon in similarly poor conditions, but the referee refused to call the game until 4 p.m. because the preparatory school extracurricular activities rules and regulations handbook stipulated that "sporting events shall not be canceled due to weather until one hour past the official start time."

At 3:37, the rain recommenced. The girls whined and shivered while Coach Betsy glowered beneath the brim of her umass crew baseball cap. These girls were not tough girls and they had little incentive, given their eight-game losing streak, to endure a rainy November afternoon.

At 3:42, the girl asked Coach Betsy if she could be excused to the field house. The girl did not say, but she implied that she had her period. Coach Betsy nodded her reluctant permission. The girl departed from the lean-to, unnoticed by her teammates.
***
Rain pattered over the grass as the girl traversed the empty field, her cleats suctioning in and out of the mud. She did not hurry. The man, she knew, would wait for her. Every afternoon the man parked across the street from the cemetery where she and her friends escaped after lunch to smoke cigarettes. At first they thought he was an undercover cop or a truant officer, someone hired by their headmaster Miss Pym to keep tabs on their forbidden roaming during school hours. But the man's car, a 1975 gray Mercedes, rendered this suspicion unlikely. He'd since been downgraded to probable pervert and treated by the girls as their mascot, rallying proof of their irresistibility. The girl made sure to pause each day in his line of vision to adjust her knee sock, or swing her Semmering-issue skirt around so that the rear knife pleats snapped back and forth like a school of fish when she walked. She had noticed that, as the weeks of fall progressed, as the trees became more and more naked and the humid tropical haze over the cemetery thinned to an astringent veneer, the man stopped watching in his non-watching way the anonymous passing of girls and focused on one girl in particular.

This should have been thrill enough.

The girl entered the new field house. She meandered down the empty halls with their long fluorescent tube lighting and glassed-in trophy cases, she pushed through the swinging olive-green door into the olive-green locker room with the olive-green tiles and the pervasive smell of pink hand soap. She stood in front of the mirror. She applied some lip balm but otherwise did nothing to improve her appearance. She was wet, she was bedraggled, and like all teenagers after a halfhearted day of French, trigonometry, study hall, drama, field hockey, she was in desperate need of a ride and a greasy meal, two very innocent things to want, even from a stranger.

She spun her locker combination, she propped her field hockey stick inside her locker and removed her book bag. Then she changed her mind, replacing her book bag, removing her stick. On her way toward the front doors of the field house, she stopped in front of the thirty-foot-long mural dominating the lobby. Miss Pym and the Semmering trustees, after securing the funds for the new field house, had announced a mural contest in which "entries should illustrate, with reference to our area's rich past, the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of New England women." The winning mural depicted women being chased by tomahawk-wielding Indians and women tied to stakes, their skirt hems blotted by flames fanning upward from crudely rendered piles of logs. The clouds above the heads of the soon-to-be-scalped-or-burned women transformed, with a little squinting and very little imagination, into faces that surveyed the scene with expressions commonly interpreted as enthusiasm. To the handful of actively feminist teachers at Semmering, these possibly enthusiastic clouds were read as a perverse endorsement of injustice against women by the school's trustees, who "noted" their complaint as a way to actively ignore it. The mural's official title--The Disappearing Women--was all but unknown among the student body, who referred to the thirty-foot wall painting as The Grin-and-Bear-It Mural; to them it aptly summed up the way they had been taught to approach the world by parents and teachers: to keep their sadness to themselves even as they were materially spoiled in this suburban enclave with its lurid history of torment.

The girl walked past The Grin-and-Bear-It Mural, heart beating at an average pace, the disappearing women gazing down at her with their irisless eyes. She exited the field house and walked three blocks north to the cemetery. She saw the man's gray Mercedes parked near the stone archway, the engine running, windshield wipers chick-chocking back and forth. The rain had increased its intensity, the patter giving way to pelting drops that formed puddles and then rivers as the water slooshed toward the leaf-clogged drains. The girl took her time. Water dripped from her nose and her chin and the hem of her skirt, soaking a perfect dark line across the thighs of her sweatpants. Her cleats made squinching noises as she walked. So little light seeped through the clouds at 3:59 p.m. that the streetlamps buzzed and ignited.

She sidled next to the Mercedes. By the car's interior light she could see the man's head bent over his newspaper. His hair fell longer than the collar of his scruffy trench coat and this slight unkemptness suggested that he was not indispensable to any job or anyone. The girl had decided that he was a banker or possibly a doctor but an undedicated one; she'd decided that he had enough family money that his profession was simply a decent way to keep his days occupied. There were plenty of men like this in her town; he was an identifiable and harmless type.

The girl paused in the ambient light shining through the Mercedes's window, illuminated, she imagined, like a beguiling specter.

The man pretended not to see her. How coy, she thought. It increased her fondness for him, the fact that he was treating this abduction like a formal courtship. Using the upturned goose head of her field hockey stick, she tapped on the glass.

The man stared at her. He reached over his newspaper to roll down the window.

The girl leaned into the car. She smelled old cigarette smoke and damp carpets. Close up, the man appeared more tired, more old, more possibly crazy.

She coughed, momentarily unsettled by the fact that this man might not be who she'd imagined him to be. She clamped her neck with the U formed by her thumb and forefinger the way her mother did when talking to someone she disliked at a cocktail party, squeezing her fingers tightly around her own throat.

The girl asked if he had a dime.

No response.

For the pay phone, she explained. Her ride had left without her, and home was too far a walk in the rain.

He responded with cautious politeness, which she read as bewildered gratitude to some unspecified higher power that this girl should walk into a trap he had yet to even set.

I'll drive you home, he said.

He unlocked the passenger-side door, sprung the latch.

The girl scurried through his headlights. She paused on the curb as the opposing team's athletic bus drove by--it was 4:05 by Semmering's steeple clock and the game had finally been postponed--to ensure that somebody might witness her getting into the car. Just in case, she dropped her field hockey stick into the gutter where it would be recovered and remarked upon by journalists and police, family, friends, teachers. She grasped the door handle and experienced a fleeting sensation of fear, an electrical charge that caused her fingers to retract into a self-protective claw. She imagined, because she was dramatically inclined, that the handle was burning hot; that her body was on fire; that she was immolating from within and her cells were being set individually ablaze because she, too, fancied herself to be a disappearing woman, her eyes a blank white stare.
West Salem

NOVEMBER 8, 1999
Once again, Mary Veal found herself the aggressively unnoticed guest at a tense social gathering at the house on Rumney Marsh. Once again, she wore a hand-me-down wool dress that itched horribly and smelled like a closet; her father was nowhere to be seen; the punch bowl provided the conversational focal point. Once again, her sisters were snubbing her. Once again, the hors d'oeuvres were lame.

Mum's funeral notwithstanding, she reflected, it felt just like old times.

From behind her plaid wingback redoubt, she watched as her older sister, Regina, ruddy hair yanked flat by a headband and thinner than her usual thin, listlessly orbited the downstairs. Her younger sister, Gaby, hunched on the piano bench, wearing a tight navy pantsuit that made her look like a down-and-out real estate agent. Gaby picked vacantly at her paper plate of grapes and salmon mousse Triscuits. She appeared, Mary thought, in need of an awkward social encounter with an estranged family member.

A wary Gaby clocked Mary's approach with her green-brown Mum eye...

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