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4.2 out of 5 stars
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The Magician's Assistant
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on 2 March 2014
The novel begins with the death of Parsifal, the magician of the title, with his ‘assistant’ and wife, Sabine by his side. However, this was a marriage between a gay man and a woman who had adored him for the previous 22 years. Parsifal, who died of an aneurism but was already holding a warrant signed by death after being diagnosed with AIDS, wanted to give Sabine a financial as well as an emotional stability by marrying her after Parsifal’s Vietnamese lover Phan had died a short time before.
A few days after the funeral Parsifal’s lawyer informs Sabine that Parsifal had left a considerable amount of money to his mother and two sisters. Parsifal was wealthy and now so was Sabine so the money being left to Parsifal’s family was of no consequence to Sabine. But what was of consequence was that Sabine was not aware of Parsifal’s family as Parsifal had never talked about his family and had led Sabine to believe that they were dead.
Soon after, Parsifal’s family visit Los Angeles to not only meet Sabine but to visit Parsifal’s (or Guy as he was christened), grave and hopefully have Sabine show them some of Parsifal’s favourite places. During this time Parsifal’s mother, Dot Fetters, invites Sabine to visit her and her family in the small town of Alliance in Nebraska and to attend her daughter’s wedding. Sabine agrees and during the visit she discovers that though she had known and loved Parsifal for 22 years and believed she knew everything about him it soon transpires that Parsifal had failed to illuminate Sabine about his early life that would define who he would become as a man.
I am going to write up front that this a delightful book that injects one with feelings of joy. The subject matter may involve death and its black tendrils that reach out and attempt to suffocate those left behind who are trying to come to terms with their loss. But this is not a didactic novel that attempts to give answers as to how to cope with death and find what the American’s refer to as ‘closure’. No, this novel is partly about how our young informative years can either define our adult life in such a way as to either set one on a road to destruction or that one cannot allow an unhappy childhood to mould us into unhappy adults. Philip Larkin may have been correct when he wrote, “They f*** you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do” but as this novel attempts to prove one can break this cycle of being f***d up.
As Sabine becomes involved in the lives of Parsifal’s parents each side draws sustenance and strength from the other and in so doing allows them to become more than they are, more than they would have been if there orbits hadn’t began to circle each other with the gravity of Parsifal’s death.
Ann Patchett’s style of writing is both luminous and absorbing. Here is her describing Los Angeles;

“Sabine was glad to show off her city. Los Angeles, she felt, was maligned because it was misunderstood. It was the beautiful girl you resented, the one who was born with straight teeth and good skin. The one with the natural social graces and family money who surprised you by dancing the Argentine tango at a wedding. While Iowa struggled through the bitter knife of winter and New York folded in crime and the South remained backwards and divided, Los Angeles pushed her slender feet into the sand along the Pacific and took in the sun.”

The author shows a considerable understanding of family dynamics. Her descriptions of childhood and the all encompassing, all pervading parental fear of a child being hurt, disabled or lost is sublime.

“Sabine’s mother tells the story of hearing a scream that was the sound only a dying person would make. She thought a wolf or a bear, animals that had never before come into the city of Montreal, was at that moment in her yard, eating her daughter alive. But when Sabine ran to her, it was only the snow she was screaming at, and her mother said she understood.”

Within this story of death, love and families is humour. It is a subtle humour that is as beguiling as any well performed magic trick. Ann Patchett has written a compellingly lyrical novel that any reader will find hard to ignore.
3 people found this helpful
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VINE VOICEon 4 December 2008
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )|Verified Purchase
In the past I've read Bel Canto by Ann Patchet which was one of the best books I've ever read, and Truth and Beauty, which was painfully dull. I failed to finish it. So I approached this novel with some trepidation. In fact it falls between the two, and perhaps at the better end. The novel is quirky story of relationships; a woman loves a gay man for years, his male partner dies so they get married, but the relationship carries on as a platonic one. He in turn dies, and following his death she learns of his unsuspcetd (to her) family. They join together in grieving for Parsifal's death and finding a way forwards. The context is original, the story is very readable, there are some clever and astute observations and at it's best there is some beautiful prose. Yet despite all that the novel is limited by the somewhat two dimensional characters. As each character is introduced you know if it's a good guy or a bad guy, and they all remain true to type consistently through the book and are the same at the end. Sabine loves Parsifal unreservedly. Full stop. Howard is a bad man. Full stop. There's no sense of grey, it's all black and white, and you have your colour and stick to it.
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on 6 February 2017
Ann Pratchett never disappoints.
A beautifully written book about grief and recovery told with a delicate wisdom and warm dry humour.
Fantastic characters that draw you into their ever evolving lives.
This is on my re-read shelf ( a high honour) and I will enjoy it again some dark winter weekend.
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on 28 May 2016
A sensitive account of different manifestations of love. Ann Patchett's examination of relationships is well written and thought provoking.
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on 23 July 2017
Loved this Ann Patchet novel. As usual a completely different story of love, dissolution and the outsider that you just cannot put down.
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on 3 April 2014
This is the second Ann Patchett book I have read and I must read more. The Magicians Assistant has kept me enthralled.
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on 2 March 2015
Read this for my book group and it was over all well received. Her style, being able to to paint clear and evocative descriptions in a concise way, was much appreciated by all.
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on 30 August 2014
You must read this - superb.
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on 19 January 2006
Bascially this is a book about a good looking chick who becomes best friends with a magician, then becomes his Debbie McGee and then falls in love with him. Unfortunately he is gay...and then he dies. She then starts to delve into his past...and I won't say any more, because that is the meat and potatoes of the book.
It just doesn't really go anywhere and reads like a daytime made-for-television film...and it just fizzles out somewhere in the middle and the author just doesn't know where to go. The metaphors are telegraphed and some of the characters are a little clichéd. There is some magic in this book, but just a bit. It is worth reading and there are some wonderful passages in the book (especially about magic and magicians), but it is not the amazing book the rest the reviewers make it out to be.
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on 25 March 2013
Ann Patchett's beautiful and very original third novel opens with the sudden death of Parsifal, a magician and exotic rug salesman. His wife Sabine is stunned with grief. She was Parsifal's assistant for his performances for over twenty years, his best friend and constant companion. She loved him so much that, although Parsifal was gay and in his later years had a long-term lover, Phan (an elegant and cultivated half-French and half-Vietnamese computer-games designer, who Sabine was very fond of), she decided to focus her love on him, rather than looking for a more conventional husband and children. And after Phan's death from AIDS, when Parsifal (by now HIV positive) asked her to marry him, she accepted joyfully. Now Parsifal has gone, struck down unexpectedly by an aneurism, and Sabine feels completely lost without him. But there are great surprises to come from Sabine. First, she learns that Parsifal (who claimed he was an orphan from a middle-class Connecticut family) has a mother and two sisters (to whom he's been sending money) living in a small town in Nebraska. Then, she receives a call from Parsifal's mother, who hadn't seen her son for over twenty years, but is desperate to see his wife and visit his grave. Sabine agrees to meet with Dot and her younger daughter. During their visit to Los Angeles, where Sabine and Parsifal made their home, Sabine begins to learn some surprising things about 'Guy Fetters' (as Parsifal was named when he was born). She also finds herself making an unexpected bond with Dot and her daughter Bertie, so much so that, when Dot contacts her soon after the visit suggesting Sabine come to visit the family in Nebraska, Sabine agrees eagerly. In the small town of Alliance, Nebraska, Sabine finds herself growing ever closer to the Fetters family, as she learns more - including one very startling fact - about Parsifal's past life. She forms a close tie with Parsifal's sister Kitty, to whom he was very close as a child. She is nourished by dreams in which Parsifal and Phan appear to her, talking to her about their pasts. And she finally begins to do what Parsifal had always hoped she would - gain the confidence to become a magician in her own right.

This is a beautifully written book, with a very sympathetic protagonist. I found Patchett's description of Sabine's strange menage a trois convincing and fascinating, and loved the thread of magic that ran through the novel. The visions of Parsifal and Phan that Sabine has while in Nebraska were sensitively written and very moving - I think out of modern writers only Salley Vickers has done this sort of thing so well. And the depiction of how Sabine gradually heals herself in her grief was beautifully done. Patchett is also great on describing places - bohemian Los Angeles and the more prosaic small-town Nebraska - and brings the Fetters family very well to life. Dot Fetters is a particularly fine and unsentimental portrayal of a kind but inwardly tough woman who has coped with a lot, and learnt to take a philosophical attitude to life. I also liked Sabine's caring Jewish parents, refugees from Poland - so much that I'd have liked to know more about their past. And the flamboyant but gentle Parsifal and his lover Phan were magnificent creations. I found that the lack of action in the plot barely mattered at all - what Patchett was concerned with was observing a process of grieving and recovery, and how family members interacted - and this she did magnificently. My only criticism was that I felt the story slightly lost its way for a bit towards the end in the sections dealing with Kitty and her crazy husband - there was a point at which the many discussions of Kitty's problems became a little bit repetitive, and the small town setting a bit claustrophobic; and I felt Patchett could have defined Sabine and Kitty's relationship and how it developed a little more clearly. Still, this certainly didn't spoil my overall enjoyment of the novel, which I will certainly read again. My only problem is that I planned to read this once then give it away due to space issues and as I want to reread it the space problem remains...
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