"The Vanishers" by Heidi Julavits

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Imagine an emotional story in which a promise never to forgive is a demonstration of love, where a young woman keeps meeting and encountering mysterious older women (who may or may not have her interests at heart), here on Earth and on the astral plane. Imagine an irreverent, acerbic young woman, by turns evasive and brutally honest, with high psychic ability, and her search for her dead mother. You might come close to Heidi Julavits’s The Vanishers.

Young Julia Severn matriculates at The Workshop, a college-level institution for training psychics. She proves to have a little too much ability for the star instructor, who punishes her with a psychic “attack” and sends her away from the school. Julia travels to Paris and Vienna, where she is incarcerated, sort of, in a spa for her health. She encounters a series of characters who each want to use Julia and her abilities for their own ends. Her main occupation during this time is to try to ferret out the existence and/or location of an avant-garde feminist film director, who may or may not be alive.

The overarching story does not have a convoluted plot; the energy in the narrative stems from the roller coaster ride that is Julia’s internal life. She sees scenes and encounters people both on the astral plane and in “real life,” and these are described in the same tone and with the same attention to detail, so that it becomes a challenge telling them apart.
The principal characters, all women, have ongoing pitched battles, trying to manipulate Julia into doing their bidding – sometimes Julia fights back and sometimes she becomes a dupe. She’s definitely having a struggle learning things at the outset of her career.

I mentioned irreverence and acerbity – this book has both in spades. It’s a delicious, fun read, but a little confusing sometimes. Additionally, characters do little to attract our interest or sympathy. There’s a lot of competition for the main character’s attention and services, and the motivation of some of the backbiting and simple personal toxicity was never clear to me. This is a highly entertaining and inventive read; I do have to say however, that I question whether the conclusion was worth the tortuous path.
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