The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Sabine is the magician’s assistant to Parsifal who she fell in love with from the moment he called her out of the crowd to be part of one of his illusions. Only one problem–Parsifal is gay. Nevertheless they perform and live together, even when Phan becomes Parsifal’s lover. Between Phan’s software business and Parsifal’s fine rug stores, they become comfortably rich. Then Phan dies of AIDS. Parsifal also has the disease and marries Sabine so that she will more easily inherit their estate.
All this is backstory, or so you think. The book opens with Parsifal lying dead on the MRI table, the victim of a brain aneurysm. Sabine is faced with the difficult task of returning to her life making architectural models and managing a house now too big for just her. She thinks that is all until she learns that Parsifal has a family back in Nebraska for whom he has established a trust, and then that they want to visit to know their son and brother Guy’s life since he left Nebraska. This is totally different from the lifestory he has told her.
As the story unfolds, Dot and Bertie visit, and in turn Sabine goes back to Nebraska to understand this part of Parsifal’s life she never knew, including meeting the older sister, Kitty. Through her interactions with this family, she discovers more about the man she loved and why he had hidden this part of his life, and more. In the end, without giving too much away, she finds both healing from her grief, and the love she lost in Parsifal, though not with a man.
And here is where I struggle with Patchett’s plotting choice. I am at once drawn by her sparkling prose and story-telling skill. One feels a quiet sense of wonder as she unfolds the lives of her characters. Nor do I object to her portrayal of gay or lesbian love, although I feel she idealizes these relationships against a backdrop of dismal heterosexual relationships. It is that in the end, Sabine once again defines her life in terms of a relationship born out of grief and crisis, albeit “blessed” in a dream by Parsifal and Phan. I was rooting for Sabine to break free from being “the assistant”. In the end, I’m not sure she does.