Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Magician's Assistant, by Ann Patchett

"Parsifal is dead. That is the end of the story." Those are the opening lines of Ann Patchett's The Magician's Assistant--but, quite obviously, that is not the end of the story, as his widow Sabine believes. Rather, it is the beginning of at least two entirely new stories--Parsifal's real, previously hidden story and Sabine's future.

Parsifal was a magician (and the owner of two successful rug shops in Los Angeles, where he actually earned his living). Parsifal married his assistant Sabine after the love of his life Phan, a techie wunderkind from Vietnam, died of AIDS. Sabine had long loved Parsifal, while always knowing he was gay. While Parsifal also had AIDS, he died suddenly of an aneurysm, leaving Sabine so depressed she is barely able to get out of her bed in their lovely home. Phan haunts her dreams with reports from the afterlife.

Then Sabine learns that the background Parsifal had created for himself--a rich orphan from Connecticut--was entirely false. Instead, he was from rural Nebraska, where his mother, two sisters, and nephews still live. Soon, his mother Dot Fetters and his sister Bertie visit Sabine in LA; Sabine is shocked to learn more about the childhood of Guy Fetters, Parsifal's original name. Bertie and Dot invite Sabine to visit Nebraska, and she surprises herself by agreeing. She arrives in the midst of a Nebraska blizzard--the winterscape providing a physical representation of how she views her beloved's childhood. As she learns more about Guy's family and grows to care for them as flawed but lovable individuals, however, she again must readjust her thinking.

The Magician's Assistant is an entertaining look at the intersection of family and place but much of the plot seems unrealistic to me--why would a talented and beautiful woman continue to love a gay man for 20+ years? Why would Parsifal's family not have tried to contact him when they knew he was a magician (they saw him on the Tonight show) and he sent them money periodically? I have other questions, but asking them might ruin the read for some. I also found the ending abrupt and unsatisfying. So it's a mixed review for me.

Favorite passages:
She imagined her loneliness taking the shape of boxes and boxes of other people's possessions, a terminal moraine that would keep all she had lost in front of her.

There was never any point in taking someone else's comfort away, even if it was comfort from another time, but Sabine did not agree with Dot's assessment of the view. Things were better in other places. People had different lives. Many suffered less. Many were happier. Sabine knew without question that Parsifal must have come to this spot. What he saw was not a life that was the same in all directions.

This time of year everyone was late anyway, cars didn't start or they slid off driveways and lodged in snowbanks. Winter was nothing but a long excuse for tardiness.

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