On a drizzly day in 1985, teenager Mary Veal goes missing after field hockey practice at her all-girls academy in West Salem, Massachusetts, only to return unharmed several weeks later. The young girl claims amnesia but insinuates something more sinister --- that she was abducted and raped. Her family and the town authorities have a good reason to be skeptical. Mary's story of her time in captivity directly mirrors the events of another young girl's disappearance in the early 1970s, as well as a 17th century story of a girl taken by Indians, a well-known folktale in this part of Massachusetts.
In order to determine the truth, Mary's parents send her to psychiatrist Dr. Hammer in the hopes of unlocking the memories of what really happened to her. In these sessions Mary begins a contentious cat-and-mouse game with her doctor, with each vying for the upper hand. Although she never reveals exactly how much she knows, Dr. Hammer becomes convinced, much like Freud did with his most famous patient, Dora, that Mary is lying and acting out for attention from her distant parents and combative sisters. At the conclusion of her treatment, Hammer writes a bestselling book about Mary and her unusual case, much to her family's dismay.
Fourteen years later, Mary returns to West Salem for her mother's funeral and must face the demons from her past. Told in alternating chapters, we see "what might have happened" back in 1985 and what is happening in the present day, where Mary tries to mend the relationships she severed so many years before. West Salem serves as a symbolic if not idyllic setting for this story, as Mary's mother spends most of her time trying to get the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to exonerate a several-generations deceased relative who was hanged for being a witch --- time that would have been better spent attending to her fragile daughter. Mary's ordeal, real or imagined, takes its toll on everyone in the family, but certainly it is hardest for her social-climbing mother, who would rather have a liar for a daughter than a rape victim.
Heidi Julavits weaves a complex tapestry of memory and longing that keeps the reader guessing until the very end. The connected threads of storyline, in the past and present, make one question their own interpretation of events in the past. Even though at times the "back and forth" nature of her sessions with Dr. Hammer can be a bit exhausting, the story itself --- and all the pieces the author merges together --- forms a compelling tale of truth and consequences, New England-style.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 24, 2011
The Uses of Enchantment