In The Magician’s Assistant, Ann Patchett tells a wonderful story of real life. She shows us love, cruelty, joy, grief, reinvention, and revelation. The narrative is a delightful mashup of the dead and the living; the past and the present; Los Angeles and a tiny Nebraska town where the Walmart is a wonderland. As always, Patchett’s characters are notable in their particularity, and her settings (especially that rice paddy in Vietnam ☺) feel viscerally real.
The book was published in 1997 and takes place in the nineties—a time when aids was a deadly scourge, homosexuals were often hated and feared, and the country was still dealing with fallout from the Vietnam war. Sabine, the main character, is paralyzed with grief because her beloved Parsifal (who married her only so she could be his widow) has died of an aneurysm in the footsteps of his Vietnamese lover, Phan, who died of AIDS. The Magician’s Assistant is a novel about grief. It also takes on homicide, domestic abuse, and family dysfunction. And by allusion, the holocaust and the Vietnam war.
And yet. And yet, it is a remarkably loving story told with lots of glam, glitter, and hyperbole.
The characters are kind to each other, with the notable exceptions of Guy’s father and Kitty’s husband, who become catalysts for transformation. The horrors of domestic violence motivate Guy to transform himself into Parsifal the magician. Howard’s meanness drive Kitty into Sabine’s bed. And Sabine and Kitty (we assume) will eventually find true love with one another.
The story is realistically told, but with just enough razzle dazzle to make it feel like it’s about . . . well . . . magic. The opulence of Sabine’s house in Los Angeles; the incredibly fine detail of her architectural models, the huge, beautiful, pricey rugs. All those teeny beads Phan sews on Sabine’s wedding gown. The unsettling similarity in appearance of Parsifal and Kitty. The gorgeous androgyny of tall, thin Sabine wandering around in Phan’s silk pajamas. Plump, placid, omnipresent Rabbit. All a bit over the top, but so compelling—especially the dreams that feel more like travel in the afterlife.
And then there’s Sabine’s card trick at the wedding. The morning before the wedding, “she found she could give the deck four extremely careless taps under any circumstance of noise with an utter lack of concentration and the aces still raced to the top of the deck like horses to the barn. That very morning, she had leaned out of the shower and tapped the deck four times with a soapy hand. Bingo.
When she, in an act of faith that a magic trick with no trickery will actually work, performs this at Bertie and Haas’s wedding reception, the guests are underwhelmed. They would have preferred something flashier with baby chicks instead of a quiet card trick. But the bride intuits something special has happened. Perhaps the “trick” that is not a trick is a quiet but profound sign to Sabine. The Parsifal she adored for so many years—never suspecting how little she knew him, what a total trickster he was—has led her to his sister. He has made a miracle for her and Kitty.
The Magician’s Assistant is the human condition revealed with pizzazz and affection.
— Sharelle Moranville