The Magician’s Assistant, by Ann Patchett

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

The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende’s novels often take place during a time of war and its aftermath when characters are forced to tap unknown reservoirs of strength and find creative, unorthodox ways of forming families to protect the vulnerable.  

Her novels are invariably well plotted and often include a thread of magical realism. And they tend to be beautifully written—though in The Japanese Lover, likely the translation does not do justice to the original manuscript.

The time of war in this novel is World War II, with the concentration camps in Germany and the Japanese internment camps in America. And the long tail on the war likely made places like Moldova (where Irina’s story begins) a place to leave. 

Early in the war, young Alma, with her Jewish parentage, is sent from Poland to live with the wealthy Belasco family in San Francisco. In her loneliness, she is befriended and comforted by her older cousin, Nathaniel Belasco. And she is utterly captivated by young Ichimei Fukuda, the Japanese gardener’s son, whose family is one of many sent to an internment camp.  

As the years pass after the war, Ichimei’s life takes its own path, and Alma grows up and marries her cousin Nathaniel and has a son with him. And the son grows up and has a son, Seth, who grows up to be one of the main chroniclers of his grandmother’s life—including the undying love story between her and gentle Ichimei. 

In the time present of the story, Alma is elderly and Seth is trying to complete a history of the wealthy and well-known Belasco family before his grandmother dies. Of great puzzlement to Seth is why, “early in 2010 his grandmother’s personality underwent a complete change in the space of two hours. Although she had been a successful artist and someone who always fulfilled her obligations, she suddenly cut herself off from the world, family, and friends, shutting herself away in an old people’s home that was beneath her and deciding, in her daughter-on-law Doris’s opinion, to dress like a Tibetan refugee.” 

The overall movement of the novel is to discover why. Why does she do his sudden, outrageous, and inexplicable thing? What happened to cause such a dramatic turn? 

Seth and Irina (a young woman who works at the old people’s home and hides a huge secret of her own) come together to love and support Alma, and to find out why she made such a dramatic change.  

To tell the story, the narration begins with a few steps forward in the characters’ lives, reaches back in time to reveal something important, takes a few more steps forward, reaches back in time to reveal something else important. Over and over again—until the reader finally and satisfyingly understands why Alma’s whole life changed in the space of two hours.   

Allende, through Alma, as seen by Irina—who is a kind of acolyte in the complicated ritual of dying—presents an evocative, compelling picture of aging unto death. Yes, aging is troublesome. It involves unrelenting loss. And it is inevitable. But Alma moves toward it with passion, discipline, imagination, and a touch of whimsey. Her soothing ritual of long weekends away with Ichimei help her linger on the bridge between life and death with her true love. 

The Japanese Lover feels singular in the way it depicts growing old and dying as a heady distillation of life. — Sharelle Moranville

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

The characters and events in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry are indeed unlikely: Harold makes a spontaneous decision to walk the length of England in yachting shoes to keep his old friend Queenie alive. He gradually abandons structure and convention as the journey progresses—finally paying no attention to night or day or weather or food or where he sleeps. He is utterly shocked at the grotesque deathbed disfigurement that has come from Queenie’s waiting for him. None of these things seem quite realistic or likely, yet the overall story comes to feels universally true and important.

At the beginning, we meet Harold and Maureen: “Harold Fry sat at the breakfast table, freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie, with a slice of toast that he wasn’t eating. He gazed beyond the kitchen window at the clipped lawn, which was spiked in the middle by Maureen’s telescopic washing line, and trapped on all three sides by the neighbor’s stockade fencing.” Maureen is cleaning, which she does a lot. She likes her toast cold and crisp. And she is dismissive of everything Harold says and does.

Immediately, Queenie’s letter arrives with the news that she is dying, and before long Harold is off on his unlikely pilgrimage to hand carry his inchoate written response to her news, believing that the long journey will delay her death.

At first, Harold and Maureen feel pathetic in their dysfunction—like characters only the author could love. But as they open up to the reader (but not to each other), they begin to feel like survivors who may deserve our understanding, instead of victims who need our pity. As the revelations land, we learn of parental abandonment and indifference. Of a brilliant, but troubled, addicted son who hangs himself.

A universal story begins to unfold of childhood tenderness and trauma, of young adulthood with its peaks and perils. If we’re lucky, true love strikes and makes us dance crazy. But even then, our past nags at our present. Shortcomings show themselves. Mistakes are made, hearts are broken, memories are wrenched into false truths. We blame, we feel guilty. We ache. We mourn. We deny.

Harold’s pilgrimage on a narrative level is about keeping Queenie in this world as long as possible, but his real pilgrimage is to fall in love with Maureen again, and have her fall in love with him again. And for them to share good, true memories of their son who, like everyone, ultimately made his own choices.

At the end, when Harold and Maureen are leaving the nuns after Queenie’s funeral, they find themselves laughing about something one of them said at their first meeting. What was said isn’t shared with the reader. It’s just their memory, which enhances the new sense of intimacy between them. “They caught hands again, and walked toward the water’s edge, two small figures against the black waves. Only half way there, one of them must have remembered again and it passed like a fresh current of joy between them. They stood at the water’s edge, not letting go, and rocked with laughter.”

— Sharelle Moranville