The book is centered around Mary Veal, an unremarkable upper-middle-class girl from outside of Boston. When Mary is 16 she disappears from her school’s field hockey practice. A few weeks later she reappears claiming to have been abducted. She is sent to see a therapist who decides that Mary lied about the abduction and he creates a theory based on her about which he writes a book.
Author Heidi Julavits tells the story from three alternating perspectives. The first is the “What Might Have Happened.” This starts with Mary skipping out on practice to get in a car with a stranger she’s noticed watching her. From there it goes on to, well, what might have happened. In this scenario, there is an abduction but at times it seems unclear who exactly is abducting whom. The next thread of the story comes from the therapist’s notes. There is a Freudian element, plenty of sexual overtones and much manipulation. But again, it’s not always clear who is manipulating whom. The last vantage point in the book comes from 14 years later. Mary’s mother, who has never forgiven Mary for bringing shame to the family, has died and Mary and her sisters reassemble at their childhood home for the funeral. Mary seems completely removed from the girl she once was and now seeks a sense of closure.
I think the three viewpoints are essential to the book working. The writing is clever and the story is compelling, but to invest too much in any one story line is to give too much credence to that version of the truth.
This book is all about different versions of the truth. And truth, it turns out, is a slippery thing. What happened or might have happened or could have happened keeps changing and readers can’t let it get to them. Here is where I fail just a little. I like truth. I like to know what happened. I like to like the characters and know who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. Maybe I’m simple like that.
None of the characters in The Uses of Enchantment are all that likable. I could look past that though, to an extent, because the story is so absorbing. The psychoanalysis and sexual politics made it an engaging look at the lives of girls in the Northeast. It was a quick read that had me hooked even if a little frustrated at times.