Ann Patchett was at least 50% of the reason that I bought the Contemporary Women’s Fiction collection. Her gorgeous Bel Canto was the first gift my husband ever gave me and she quickly became one of my favorite novelists. So an Ann Patchett book plus five other books for a bargain price? Sold.
The Magician’s Assistant, like many of the other books in the collection, opens with a death. Sabine, the magician’s assistant from the title, lived happily for many years with Parsifal the magician and his lover Phan. Both Phan and Parsifal were HIV-positive, and after Phan’s death Parsifal married Sabine to ensure that she would inherit his home and money. Sabine has been bracing herself for Parsifal’s decline, but on the first page of the book, Parsifal dies of a sudden aneurysm.
Along with his house and fortune, Parsifal’s will leaves Sabine a shock: he has put aside money for his family. The family he has always claimed was killed in a car accident in his teens. Before Sabine quite knows what is happening, Dot and Bertie Fetters of Alliance, Nebraska are on their way to Los Angeles to meet her.
The Magician’s Assistant didn’t quite live up to Bel Canto for me, but that barely qualifies as a criticism. What I love most about this book is the way that Patchett takes a situation that could have been a soap opera cliche — the long-lost family — and makes you absolutely believe in the characters and care about them. Parsifal’s mother Dot — who still calls him by his birth name, Guy — is struggling with painful guilt over her long estrangement from her son. Bertie, Parsifal’s much-younger sister, barely remembers the brother who left home when she was just a baby and mostly wants to protect her mother. Sabine is trying desperately to understand why Parsifal would have lied to her, and why he would have left money to a family that she suspects rejected him because of his homosexuality. There are hurts and confusion and frustration, but during the Los Angeles visit Dot, Bertie, and Sabine all do their best to navigate these strange new waters and come to a better understanding of a man they all loved.
While Sabine is clear that her act with Parsifal depended on misdirection and skill, a gentle thread of magical realism weaves its way through the book. Sabine regularly dreams of a healthy and vibrant Phan, who carries messages from Parsifal. The dream scenes are lovely and melancholy, and illustrate how much Sabine has lost now that both men are gone. I also loved that the reason for Parsifal/Guy’s estrangement from his family is unexpected and yet believable. The more you learn about the circumstances that led to Guy leaving home at eighteen, the more you want to give the entire Fetters family a huge hug.
The Magician’s Assistant was a wonderful way to round out the Contemporary Women’s Fiction collection, but is good enough to merit purchase in its own right. If you’re looking for a warm, generous, bittersweet story about families and loss and many different kinds of love, pick this up.
Rating: Buy It