The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett

Quietly meditative yet incredibly evocative. I find it difficult to pick favorites when it comes to Patchett’s work but The Magician’s Assistant has my heart.

Published in 1997 Ann Patchett’s third novel, The Magician’s Assistant is her most underrated work to date. Like with any other novel that I hold dear to my heart, I find it difficult to articulate my feelings towards The Magician’s Assistant, but I will nonetheless try to (please bear with). Luminous, subtle, and enchanting, The Magician’s Assistant is all of these and so much more. It is a work of rare beauty, one that showcases Patchett’s gracefully restrained prose. The Magician’s Assistant is characterized by a dreamlike atmosphere that lends Sabine’s experiences an ethereal quality. That one of the story’s main motifs is magic, undeniably contributes to its underlying fairytale-esque mood. Sabine’s journey of self-discovery, however reluctantly embarked upon, and the story’s preoccupation with life and death carry soft echoes of ancient myths and folktales. Yet, as with most of her work, much of the ‘action’ in The Magician’s Assistant remains grounded in the mundane: from the characters’ conversations and exchanges, which often occur in the kitchen, after dinner, or driving someplace else, to their ordinary routines and experiences. Far from boring, these glimpses into the characters’ everyday lives feel precious. These ordinary backdrops feel intimate, as we are able to see the characters’ at their truest. In these spaces and conversations, we see their vulnerabilities, desires and anxieties.

As State of Wonder, The Magician’s Assistant begins with the death of a loved one. Parsifal, a magician of irresistible charm and beauty, dies, leaving his closest friend and assistant, Sabine, bereft. Sabine was Parsifal’s assistant for more than twenty years, and the two had recently married so she could inherit. Although Sabine was in love with Parsifal, she was content with being his friend and being part of his and Phan’s, his beloved partner, lives. After their deaths Sabine sleepwalks through her life, losing herself in memories of their days together and roaming their gorgeous house in LA, a place that no longer feels as if brimming with endless possibilities. When Sabine learns that Parsifal’s family, who he’d claimed to have died in his youth, are not only alive but on their way to meet her, Sabine is jolted out of her grief-stricken daze. How could the person she loved the most in the world, and who was closest to her, have lied to her for so long? Did they cut him off because he was gay? Did they abuse him? What led him to leave his small town in Nebraska to reinvent himself in LA as the magician Parsifal?

While Sabine is uneasy about meeting Parsfial’s mother and younger sister, wondering what they did to make Parsifal want to bury them in his past, she yearns to learn the truth, hoping that hearing about Parsifal’s youth, what was he like as a child and a boy, will prevent his presence and memory from fading. The surreal experience of meeting his family and the unremitting shock brought by his absence, eventually lead Sabine to acquiesce to their ‘demands’, that is to visit them in Alliance, Nebraska. Although Sabine seeks to find the truth behind Parsifal’s ‘renunciation’ of his family, she finds herself forging a deep bond with them: from his lively and hard-working mother, Dot, who for years has carried the guilt of his departure, to his sisters, Kitty, whose resemblance to him makes Sabine feel all sorts of ways, and Bertie, and even his sweet yet bickering nephews, Kitty’s sons.

Recurring magic tricks, family traditions, and dreams accompany Sabine’s throughout the narrative. The vastly different settings of LA and Alliance, as well as Sabine and the Fetters’ different realities, contribute to the novel’s subtle sense of surreality. Sabine’s dreams, in particular, blur the line between life and death, but it is ultimately up to each reader to view these as a manifestation of her psyche or as her being reunited with her loved ones. In this dreamspace, Sabine meets Phan, and their moments of shared understanding as well as their mutual love for Parsifal and their lives before were as heartrending as they were bittersweet.

I love that Patchett is able to imbue everything with a sense of longing. An example: “The closets were empty except for some summer dresses pushed down hard to the far end of the bar; a few pairs of sandals, stacked one on top of another, sat beneath them as if they knew to stay close to the dresses they belonged with.” What could have been a boring line describing objects becomes a moment of melancholy. I also love Patchett’s refusal to write about people who are either good or bad, as she always emphasizes those shades of gray, those that make us complex and often idiosyncratic. I love that Patchett is able to capture family dynamics and people’s essences in a way that is at once subtle yet evocative. I love her story’s strong sense of place, to the extent that LA and Alliance are characters in their own rights. I love that she is able to write of regret, love, and grief with such insight and empathy.
In short: I love this novel.

The Magician’s Assistant is a dazzling work brimming with beauty and sorrow that I cannot recommend enough (especially to existing patchett fans). I doubt I will ever tire of re-reading this novel, it is a salve to my soul.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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