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The Vanishers Hardcover – March 13, 2012

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Editorial Reviews Review

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.


Winner of the PEN New  England Award for Literary Excellence in Fiction

--Vanity Fair

“An absorbing meditation on female competition with Hitchcockian twists....Gripping”
--Entertainment Weekly

"Darkly, sardonic, hilarious....Julavits is at her acrobatically linguistic best here. Nearly every page contains a showstopping description or insight...narrative voice is superb. Funny, self-deprecating, exquisitely attuned....Vivid....Remarkable....Heartbreaking."
--New York Times Book Review

"Open The Vanishers to any page and you'll find some of the snappiest dialogue going. Stylish and fiercely funny, Heidi Julavits's fourth novel explores the imagined dangers and dizzying thrills of being a career psychic....Julavits is a fearlessly inventive writer, a risk-taker who never shies away from prickly, tangled, often meaphorical emotional darkness and constantly strikes out into unexplored territory....the sharply original narrative, which moves at top speed, [is] always entertaining and full of curiosities, deadpan banter, and metaphysical playfulness.....a wild, fun ride that doesn't let up until the last sentence."

"Heidi Julavits has a questing, eclectic intellect....wry wit and linguistic exuberance. She creates a sophisticated symmetry in the final surprising moments of Julia’s story, and, as if in an encore, adds an adroit comic flip at the end."
--Boston Globe

 “The protagonist could join the ranks of literature’s most unreliable narrators alongside Humbert Humbert…”
--Wall Street Journal

"Sharp-eyed, sardonic"
--New York Times, Editor's Choice

"Part coming-of-age story, part murder mystery, part absurdist romp, part neurological novel. I loved it.....Julavtis' characters are as earnestly bizarre as Haruki Murakami's, and she's as funny as Lorrie Moore.....wonderful and interesting complications....Julavits is so smart and funny, and her writing is so good."
--San Francisco Chronicle

"Ms. Julavits is a keen observer of the high drama...An evocative writer, she conjures up the supernatural in a way that feels plausible....Lavish....Haunting"
--The Economist

"Thrilling, subversive insights...powerful in many ways....On the subject of loss in particular, Julavits is an expert, writing with eloquence and poetry.....sturdy intellectualism.....achieves a deepening of the novel's wisdom and insight....delivers a thunderclap of real feeling"
--Philadelphia Inquirer

"A blistering read. Female aggression may lurk everywhere, but Julavits decides to unleash her antagonists in a quirky realm, the fictional Institute of Integrated Parapsychology, a New Hampshire school for students of the occult....funny, satiric and savage....the visceral kick of Julavits' prose....will provide a similar jolt of transgressive, feminine thrill."
--Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Julavits is no ordinary writer, and the meta-heavy brilliance of her fourth novel is something akin to a Sylvia Plath poem transferred telepathically to a psychic who happens to be solving a missing-person's case while being film-followed by artist Sophie Calle."

"Fantastic, deep and complicated...explores the way loss, disappointment, anger, deception and trauma can bleed down from generation to generation....a complicated, often troubling meditation on the complexities of relationships..."
--Boston Phoenix

"Bristling with wicked humor and sharp-edged irony, The Vanishers explores the ways in which the dead can haunt the living and the often painful persistence of memory"
--Huffington Post

"Clever....funny, ambitious world that reveals the depths of matriarchal power structure....At the same time, Julavits does some clever twisting to the classic revenge plot....satisfying in all its attempts as a robust mystery, satire of academia, and finicky family drama."

"Intelligent and ambitious"-
-Kirkus Reviews

"Wry, witty....magical, and Julavits's often acerbic prose generates laughs despite the sad reality"
--Publishers Weekly


The Vanishers is a fascinating inquiry into matriarchal structures: their power struggles, the projections, distortions and anxieties that result, and, above all, the creative - and destructive - energies that they unleash. A real achievement."
Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder and C

“It is always an adventure and a delight to read Heidi Julavits. Her intellectual brio and descriptive inventiveness are on full display in The Vanishers, but she’s gone further this time by inventing a new genre: the astral detective thriller.”
Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad

The Vanishers is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, delivering all the immediate pleasures of mystery, horror, and satire while exploring grief in language that is as shocking for its originality as its precision. Julavits takes readers on a wild ride that hops continents and decades, but the real setting of The Vanishers is the gray territory between sickness and health, sanity and delusion, love and hatred, life and death.”
Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves


"A technical marvel . . . that moves with the speed and inevitability of a freight train . . . Entertaining, devastating, and as slippery as a strand of its anti-heroine's lank hair." —Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Julavits expertly keeps the reader baffled until the end, but beneath the mystery is a sophisticated meditation on truth and bias." —The New Yorker

"Suspenseful, energetic, and literarily playful." —San Francisco Chronicle


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 284 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1st edition (March 13, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385523815
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385523813
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #991,087 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Heidi Julavits was born and raised in Portland, Maine. She is the author of four critically acclaimed novels (The Vanishers, The Uses of Enchantment, The Effect of Living Backwards, and The Mineral Palace). She coedited, with Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton, the bestselling Women in Clothes. Her short stories have appeared in Harper's, Esquire, the Best American Short Stories, McSweeney's, among other places. Her nonfiction has appeared in Harper's, the New York Times, Elle, Bookforum, and the Best American Travel Essays. She is a founding co-editor of The Believer magazine, the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and winner of the PEN/New England Fiction Award. She currently teaches at Columbia University. She lives in Manhattan and Maine with her husband, Ben Marcus, and their two children.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

31 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Susan Tunis on March 19, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I'm one of those reviewers who tends to start with a plot summary. So, I could tell you that this is the story of twenty-something Julia Severn, an "Initiate of Promise" at the Institute of Integrated Parapsychology. The novel begins by detailing Julia's complex and troubled relationship with her mentor, Madame Ackerman. Their problems may stem from the mentor's fear of being supplanted by the protégé, or perhaps they're due to Ackerman's resemblance to Julia's mother who committed suicide when Julia was an infant. For these reasons (and others), things sour, but their separation plagues Julia physically. She leaves school and spends the next year seeking a medical explanation for her physical decline. None is forthcoming until an odd girl literally trips into her life and explains that she's under "psychic attack." Offers of both help and employment are proffered.

And that--as they say--is just the beginning. The plot of this novel felt like a game of Three Card Monty, with constantly shifting character identities and allegiances. I didn't read this novel because the description of the plot interested me. Ghosts, psychics, astral projections? Definitely not my cup of tea. However, a book about mother-daughter relationships and other female rivalries? Now you're talking! And that's very much what Heidi Julavits delivered. The whole psychic thing was merely the backdrop against which every type of mother-daughter drama imaginable was displayed.

And all this talk of "drama" sounds dramatic, and some of it was. But a lot of it was very, very funny. And even more of it was weird. And some of it was just plain confusing. I stand by my Three Card Monty analogy. But through it all was Heidi Julavits' sparkling prose.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By asassyvic on June 29, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I listened to this on audio, Xe Sands is a wonderful narrator. Sands is the only reason I got to the end of this tedious book. I felt some admiration for Sands, that she did not go into a coma reading it. The story started out with potential, and then fell into confusion, and craziness.
It was difficult to follow the variety of characters, not a single one of them was even remotely interesting. At one point I thought the entire story was about the madness of all of them, and the entire scenario, was taking place in Julia's mind withing a mental hospital. Really a boring, and unnecessarily long and drawn out book. This is not a book I recommend. I give it two stars, because of the excellent narrator.
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26 of 33 people found the following review helpful By PattyLouise VINE VOICE on March 13, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition
Quick summary...

Julia is a psychic who has issues and she is being made sick and unstable by another psychic who is jealous of her.

My thoughts...

This was an extremely weird yet oddly fascinating book. Julia was assisting Madame Ackerman when a psychic event caused Madame Ackerman to hate her and make her quite ill. Julia already has issues because of her mothers suicide and it doesn't take much of Madame Ackerman's skills to do her in. She is asked to leave her training. She takes pills round the clock and her life is pretty miserable.

Apparently she has to vanish to get better so she does.

I am not sure that I totally got hooked by this book...reading it was like reading a bizarre tale...the writing was superb and it was sort of fascinating but a little too heavy into weird psychic stuff for me.

But once I started it I really did not want to put it down...I wanted to understand this strange bizarre wold Julia lived in.

But mostly I just wanted her to get better. Fast. There is talk about Sylvia Plath while Julia is in pyschic rehab...Sylvia Plath...the Bell Jar...ugh...

Slowly her psychic sight is restored...she sees again...she can find lost things but she is still weird...she is embroiled in this idea that she must find out what happened to her mother...the mother who committed suicide when Julia was one month old.
Slowly ...other properties that have been taken from Julia are slowly returned to her.
Her world now includes even more strange events. There are surgical impersonators...people who take different faces while they "vanish". She hangs out with really unusual people...and as she gets stronger the events get more and more odd.

They drink liver tea...
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18 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Cynthia on March 15, 2012
Format: Hardcover
"The Vanishers" has a nice twist on the paranormal craze. Julavits manages to present a fresh outlook as well as a believable plot as long as you're willing to suspend belief and go with the premise. Mid twenties Julia Severn is attending a course in honing her psychic skills in lieu of a more traditional graduate course. She becomes fixated on her mentor, Madam Ackerman, in part because she lost own mother as a baby and still longs for her. Then things blow up at school and Julia becomes so ill she must take time away. She meets some shady (or perhaps they are merely pieces of her life puzzle) people who influence her to go to Europe in search of recovering her health but also to uncover a mysterious female director who is thought to be involved with an organization that helps people stage their own disappearances, leaving only a film for their loved ones to view stating their reasons for their suicide or disappearance. I did say you'd need to suspend belief right? I didn't love this book but enjoyed it enough to keep turning the pages. As I've said it balances a tightrope walk through fairly unbelievable plot points but Julavits does a great job with the pacing of the story, in fact the pacing and the freshness of the plot were her strong points.

This review was based on a e-galley provided by the publisher.

3.5/5 stars
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