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The Vanishers: A Novel by Heidi Julavits

The Vanishers: A Novel (edition 2012)

by Heidi Julavits

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Title:The Vanishers: A Novel
Authors:Heidi Julavits
Info:Doubleday (2012), Hardcover, 304 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Read, Fiction

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The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits


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The Vanishers starts off promisingly, with an intriguing plot, a wryly self-aware narrative voice, and evocative descriptions of travels in the ether of astral projection. Unfortunately, it ultimately vanishes down its own metaphysical rabbit hole, as coincidences pile up and characters overlap to such a degree that we can no longer recognize or connect to them. The fact that this may be the point is either a brilliant meditation on the nature of grief and longing or a cop-out that illuminates the shimmery superficial pleasures of the novel while spotlighting its gaping holes in logic. The pace also feels oddly amiss, as an endless series of encounters lead to epiphanies that only lead to further encounters and epiphanies. I always cringe when authors thank their editors in the acknowledgments if the editing has played an important role in perpetuating missteps, as is the case here. A more zealous editor could perhaps have wrested a more streamlined narrative from the repetition and evened out the pacing. Yet Julavits undoubtedly offers stunning insights and apt metaphors, and her passion for her heroine's journey almost atones for the novel's problematic trajectory. "...this is what being alive means, this is what being a person means, to be sickened by an illness known as you." ( )
  coltonium | Mar 27, 2014 |
Why did I make myself finish this book? Off my nightstand at last. (At least the new cover art makes some sense....) ( )
  beaujoe | Sep 21, 2013 |
I'm not even sure what to write about this. I'm not even sure what I just listened to. Interesting concept and the beginning had lots of potential, but didn't really go anywhere. Psychics, dead mothers, self analysis, mothers and daughters, meaning of life, and disappearing seem to be the main themes. Well written, but it's seemed to be a story that was building forever but never climaxed. Even the main character didn't seem to understand what was going on. By the end of the book I couldn't wait for it to end ( )
  sydamy | Jun 2, 2013 |
I picked this book by the cover. I was obsessed by it, and I jumped at the chance to read it when it came available on my library's ebook site. That said, I found parts of the book to be compelling and other parts to be completely convoluted and confusing. I appreciate the writing style and descriptions of the author, but I just didn't appreciate the story at all. It really went on for much too long and didn't provide me with any real sense of completion. I found the plot and characters to be as confusing as the picture on the cover is to the story. ( )
  c.archer | Apr 15, 2013 |
I must admit, the bright pinkish, floral cover of this novel, as well as the description about mother-daughter psychic damage, gave me pause, as I generally don't like touch-feely fiction unless I'm in a particular mood, but Knopf often publishes books I like, and I decided to give this strange sounding plot a whirl. While this will not go down on my list of all-time favorites, I may have to start list for best books with improbable plots just to put this one at the top. The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits turned out to not be in any way touchy-feely, and is in fact a rather dark and humorous tale wrought with anxiety and unwitting revenge. What? Exactly.

The Vanishers tells the sporadic, sardonic tale of Julia Severn, a young psychic prodigy who unexpectedly meets her match in her mentor at an elite university for parapsychology. Or rather, unexpectedly discovers she is her mentor's match. She then begins to suffer from a myriad of mysterious ailments, presumably somewhat psychosomatic at their root, or psychically afflicted by her mentor, and is accosted by some odd characters (one is described later as emitting a "carcinogenic unhappiness") that claim they can help "cure" her. They describe the process of disappearing oneself from one's life when it becomes to much -"vanishing"- as an alternative to suicide. Not that Julie's necessarily suicidal, but they had heard of her psychic prowess and needed her help to track down some long lost film. In order to recover, they tell her, she will have to "vanish" herself.

The plot has many twists and turns and unlikely connections, and is anything but conventional. Julavits uses many vivid descriptors, which at times subtly imply the novel's themes, such as "With her doll eyes blinking from her scavenged face, she resembled a person buried inside another person." Julie's own mother had committed suicide when she was a baby, and elements of how it affected her relationship with her father, who would only wax philosophical when asked to describe what sort of mother she would have been:
My response would not be a truthful attempt to answer your question, it would be an attempt to compensate for your loss by creating an ideal person whose absence you can mourn unreservedly. However, this puts me in the position of making her into someone she was possibly not; it forces me to falsely represent her to you, and in doing so I become, not the keeper of her memory, but the re-creator of her past, and that role makes me uncomfortable; also I believe it is, in the long run, a disservice to her, because you will grow up missing a mother that you would never have experienced, had she not died. And this strikes me as a second kind of death, a more complete and horrible death, to be annihilated and replaced by a hypothetical person who is not remotely you, thus I think it is better that she remain a quasi-mystery, a pleasant unknown, than an absence filled with compensatory narratives supplied by your guilty father.Elements of suicide, the past intersecting the present, revenge, and the precarious relationships forged between women are woven throughout the story.
Because I’d decided—this kind of hating, this kind of fault-finding, this kind of symbolic matricide, it had to stop. If I’d formed an allegiance to Irenke, it was because I’d decided that to befriend Irenke was to ensure that my mother’s death did not perpetuate more pointless, self-defeating rivalries among women who, in the end, were only killing themselves.I cannot do the plot much justice here, and it's complications almost run away with themselves, but the uniqueness of the storyline won me over in the end.

*I received this copy courtesy of Knopf Doubleday via NetGalley. ( )
  zeteticat | Apr 2, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385523815, Hardcover)

Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2012: The Vanishers is a lot of things: a paranormal detective story, an affecting exposition of familial and female dynamics, and a hilarious satire of academic politics. Here, Heidi Julavits has crafted a novel that is as ambitious as it is strange. After angering her jealous mentor, Julia, an up-and-coming psychic, is exiled from the Institute of Integrated Parapsychology, an elite psychic academy dubbed the Workshop. Subjected to a "psychic attack," Julia is crippled of her powers, until she receives an offer she can't refuse: to team up with her mentor's academic rival to get revenge, while seeking out a mysterious filmmaker who may have a connection to Julia's dead mother. It's a bizarre adventure that takes her to a recovery facility for victims of psychic attacks and which doubles as a spa for plastic surgery patients. Beneath The Vanishers’ quirky, metaphysical charms is a dark, Freudian undercurrent--Julia can’t help comparing her mother’s suicide to Sylvia Plath's--that surfaces at the very end in a satisfying, thrilling twist. The Vanishers is a truly unique, thoroughly imagined astral mystery. --Kevin Nguyen

Featured Guest Review: Karen Russell on The Vanishers

Karen Russell is the author of the short story collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and the novel Swamplandia!, named one of New York Times' Top Ten Best Books of 2011.

Julia Severn, an initiate at the Institute of Integrated Parapsychology and stenographer to the great seer, Madame Ackermann (a recipient of "the occult equivalent of a MacArthur"), has a lot of raw talent. So much, in fact, that the relationship between mentor and protégé quickly sinks into hostile territory when Madame Ackermann taunts Julia with specters of her late mother. After a game of mental telepathy goes awry (forget Twister," these party games the academic psychics play, they are high stakes), Julia finds herself abstractly ill, undiagnosable and unable to continue her studies with Madame Ackermann.

Julia heads to New York, where she meets Alwyn, a young woman who has "vanished" herself, leaving her family without a clue as to her whereabouts; and Colophon Martin, a one-time employer and current adversary of Madame Ackermann. They theorize that all of Julia's strange symptoms can be traced back to her former mentor: Julia is suffering from a psychic attack launched by the jealous Madame. Colophon urges Julia to check herself into Vienna's Goergen Asylum, a cavernous Art Nouveau spa for patients wishing to recover in secret from plastic surgeries, and for the vanished victims of psychic attack.

On the surface, The Vanishers is about two paranormal scholars with the ability to carry out perplexing psychic attacks on their adversaries, and it is without a doubt a chilling metaphysical mystery. But it's also a totally delightful satire of academia, where email attachments can carry luminous pathogens and psychic warfare might at any moment erupt near an Institute cheese plate; it's a medical horror story that will be intimately familiar to anyone who has ever been sick with something that resists names and medicines; and it's a darkly hilarious send-up of spa culture and the various forms of amnesia, facial disguises, and self-erasure bottled and sold to us by the "health and beauty" industry.

The Vanishers delivers pretty much every pleasure a reader could ask for, and its unusual framework weaves together the powerful themes that dominate Julavits's other novels--it gives fresh expression to the experience of grief, of mourning for one's mother and for one's vanished self, of the fraught bonds between women and the twisted consequences of female rivalry and the games that people play with one another. I was amazed by the language in The Vanishers, at Julavits's gift for distilling complex desires, dream and emotion, and certain interior experiences that I had believed to be beyond articulation, into prose of shocking beauty and originality.

The Vanishers is an absolute masterpiece. Julavits takes readers on a wild ride that hops continents and decades, but the real setting is the grey territory between sickness and health, sanity and delusion, love and hatred, life and death.

One thing is certain, you will never think of "mental health" in the same way again.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:23:08 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

A power struggle between a leading student at an elite institute for psychics and her jealous legendary mentor culminates in the student being forced to relive her mother's suicide during a brutal psychic attack.

(summary from another edition)

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