Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett


I read this book way back in January. It’s the third book on the theme of illusion that I’ve read. I wrote about the other two The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster here and The Illusionist by Jennifer Johnston here. They’re all good reads, although quite different books in different styles.

The opening sentences of The Magician’s Assistant introduce the illusion: “Parsifal is dead. That is the end of the story” - it’s an illusion, because of course this is only the beginning of the story and Parsifal pervades the book. Parsifal was a magician and Sabine had been his assistant for twenty years. She and Parsifal had been married for less than a year when he died suddenly of an aneurysm, leaving her alone in their large house in Los Angeles, apart from a large white rabbit, called Rabbit, who was retired from the stage as he was too big to be pulled out of a hat. To her surprise she discovered that he wasn’t who she had believed him to be. He had told her he had left home when he was seventeen and that his family was dead. But his mother Kitty Fetters and sisters, Bertie and Kitty contacted her after his death. They knew he had become a magician as they had seen him on the Johnny Carson Show – indeed they watched a recording of it most nights, entranced by his fame. They had no idea of his life, that he was gay, or that he had married Sabine. When Kitty and Bertie visit Sabine and invite her back to their home in Alliance, Nebraska, the truth is gradually revealed.

Interspersed with the action are Sabine’s dream sequences with Phan, Parsifal’s lover. Sabine thinks of these as contact with Parsifal and Phan and learns about their lives at the same time as during the day she is learning about his past family life. There is an out-of-world feel to these sequences, calming Sabine’s turmoil and confusion, which I liked. There is a lot in this book about identity, what and who a person actually is; about how the world is in fact illusory; and the importance of family. Sabine’s family life as the only child of Jewish parents who adore her forms a contrast with Parsifal’s but even here all is not what it seems.

After Parsifal’s death Sabine is lost, lonely and inconsolable and it is through Parsifal’s family and in particular through Kitty his sister, who she sees as a representation of him that she begins to cope with her loss. The scenes in Alliance form a complete contrast to life in LA, where everything seems perfect. None of the Kitty’s family has had life easy, they all have problems. I found the sequences with Kitty’s sons some of the most realistic in the book; the two teenagers came to life for me. If I have a criticism of the book it is of the ending. It all seems a bit too tidy, a bit “arranged”. But I did enjoy it – it’s a moving story about love, and grief and family.

5 comments:

Les said...

Lovely review! I'd forgotten all about Kitty's sons. I just re-read my review from a couple of years ago and think you did a much nicer job summarizing the details of the story. Have you read Patchett's recent book, Run?

Kay said...

I read this several years ago and enjoyed it so much. I haven't read her recent book, RUN, but I intend to.

BooksPlease said...

Les thank you, I see we both found the ending lacking in something. I agree about the sense of foreboding as well. I thought Nebraska came out as a difficult place to live (not knowing it myself)

and Kay, I haven't read Run, or any of Patchett's other books, but I'll be looking out for them. I like her writing style.

Les said...

I highly recommend Bel Canto. It was in my Top Ten for 2004. Feel free to read my review here.

Terri B. said...

Very nice review. I love Ann Patchett's writing. This one in particular has stayed in my mind.