Printer-Friendly Summaries

Summaries for The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett
From the Backflap
When Parsifal, a handsome and charming magician dies suddenly, his widow Sabine – who was also his faithful
assistant for twenty years – learns that the family he claims to have lost in a tragic accident is very much alive and
well. Sabine is left to unravel his secrets, and the adventure she embarks upon, from sunny Los Angeles to the bitter
windswept plains of Nebraska will work its own magic on her. Sabine’s extraordinary tale will capture the heart of
its readers just as Sabine herself is captured by her quest.
From Kirkus Reviews
Having produced wonders in two earlier novels (The Patron Saint of Liars, 1992; Taft, 1994), Patchett here conjures
up a striking tale of pain and enchantment as an L.A. woman, who lost the love of her life after a few short months
of marriage, finds unexpected consolation from her husband's family--a family she never knew he had. When
Parsifal the Magician died suddenly of an aneurism, he left his assistant of 22 years, the statuesque Sabine, whom
he'd recently married after his longtime gay partner Phan's death, heartbroken and numb. He also left a rude surprise:
The family he always spoke of as dead is in fact alive and well in Alliance, Nebraska--and his mother and younger
sister are soon on their way to see Sabine. Seemingly decent folk, the two women return home leaving her mystified
as to why Parsifal (born Guy Fetters) would have denied their existence. And so, lonely and still paralyzed with
grief, Sabine decides to visit them in the dead of a Nebraska winter, hoping for relief and some answers. She gets
more than she bargained for when older sister Kitty, herself married to an abusive husband, reveals that Parsifal had
accidentally killed his father in trying to keep him from beating their pregnant mother. After he did time in the
reformatory, his family lost touch with him completely--until one night when they saw him and Sabine on the
Johnny Carson show. The nightly replay of a video of that show became a family ritual of hope, especially for
Kitty's two boys, now teenagers as desperate to get away as their uncle had been. Sabine, quite a magician herself,
begins a process of healing for them all, and with it comes realization of the hope that the family had long cherished.
Masterful in evoking everything from the good life in L.A. to the bleaker one on the Great Plains, and even to
dreams of the dead: a saga of redemption tenderly and terrifically told.
From The New York Times, November 16, 1997
Parsifal is dead,'' reads the startling opening of ''The Magician's Assistant,'' Ann Patchett's third novel. ''That is the
end of the story.'' Since more than 350 pages follow, the reader has been fairly warned to expect surprises and a few
contradictions. And sure enough, they begin appearing like doves from silk scarves. Instead of a medieval knight,
Parsifal turns out to be a gay magician, the owner of a rug store in Los Angeles who has AIDS and who has just died
of a ruptured aneurysm while holding hands with his assistant, Sabine, whom he recently married. ''I love you,''
Parsifal had said. ''I want you to be my widow.''
A contradiction in herself, the beautiful Sabine has rejected many admirers to devote her entire adult life to loving
Parsifal, assisting his magic act and finally helping him tend his dying Vietnamese lover, Phan. Now middle-aged
and alone in Phan's enormous house in Los Angeles with only a rabbit for company, she slides into a dangerous,
somnolent despair, mourning the loss of a man she never had -- which means there is no need ever to quit mourning
him. Like Sleeping Beauty, she has fallen under a spell that seems impossible to break.
This curiously fraught situation becomes more so once it is revealed that Parsifal had a secret history. The tragic,
privileged background in Connecticut he had described to Sabine was all smoke and mirrors; it turns out he grew up
as Guy Fetters in Alliance, Neb., where his mother and two sisters still live, though he hadn't seen them for decades.
When the frumpy Dot Fetters and her daughter Bertie show up in Los Angeles to meet Guy's wife and see his grave
-- right next to Phan's -- what began as a complicated story becomes almost baroque. The Fetterses prove to be
tolerant, caring folks. Alarmed by her unhappiness, they invite Sabine to visit them in tiny Alliance, and she
surprises herself by going, hoping for some sort of connection with the Parsifal she has just discovered. ''When
Parsifal died she lost the rest of his life, but now she had stumbled on 18 years. Eighteen untouched years that she
could have; early, forgotten volumes of her favorite work. A childhood that could be mined month by month.
Parsifal would not get older, but what about younger?''
The difficulty with this unusual romance is that it is never clear why Sabine loves Parsifal so obsessively. He was
generous and good-hearted, but so are his mother and sisters and nearly everyone else she encounters, including
Phan, who regularly visits Sabine's dreams to report on the afterlife and advise her on her quest. We are reminded
several times that Parsifal was a magician, and ''without magicians, the assistants were lost,'' but that answer isn't
satisfying either, even for a novel that insists on becoming a fairy tale. Sabine remains an enigma, a woman
entranced by her own enchantment. Which explains why she never generates enough sympathy to make her
predicament truly absorbing.
Yet the kindliness of ''The Magician's Assistant'' is beguiling, and Patchett is an adroit, graceful writer who knows
enough tricks to keep her story entertaining. She is especially practiced at the razzle-dazzle of odd juxtapositions. As
Sabine notes: ''People long to be amazed, even as they fight it. Once you amaze them, you own them.'' Few readers
will be amazed that Sabine's search for Parsifal in Nebraska leads her to find love unexpectedly or that by
posthumously reuniting Parsifal with his mother and sisters, she helps unchain them from a painful past. But it is
still gratifying to watch Patchett pull each rabbit out of the hat.
The real appeal of ''The Magician's Assistant'' lies in the small, accumulating ways in which Sabine and the Fetters
family assist one another out of isolation and sorrow. By the end, they have all been somewhat transformed -- yes,
by the magic of love. If it is hard not to squint at some of the flashy paradoxes Patchett uses to construct her
narrative, then perhaps a struggle with credulity is precisely what she wants to encourage. Improbable relationships
can flourish; strange havens do exist. Becoming accustomed to sad endings may be more naive than believing, now
and then, in happily ever after. ~~Suzanne Berne
From BookPage Fiction Review
What is a magician's assistant to do when her magician dies? If she's strong and lucky, she learns to create her own
magic, just as Ann Patchett does with her masterful new novel "The Magician's Assistant."
Sabine had worked with and loved Parsifal for more than 20 years, since she had put down her cocktail tray at the
age of 19 to step up onto the stage in response to Parsifal's glamorous smile and beckoning hand. But Parsifal was
gay; he loved Phan, the soft-spoken Vietnamese software designer who shared Parsifal's life and who became
Sabine's dearest friend. Having decided long ago that a platonic relationship with Parsifal was better than living
without him, Sabine contented herself with learning the new acts, sharing a deep, almost familial bond with Phan
and Parsifal and building her painstakingly detailed architectural models.
But then Phan dies of AIDS, and Parsifal is diagnosed with the disease. Ironically, it is under these tragic
circumstances that Sabine achieves the impossible dream of marriage to Parsifal, though the marriage is one in name
only, Parsifal's way of insuring that Sabine will be financially secure after he is gone. Parsifal's own death is as
surprising as one of his magic tricks -- one minute he is sitting at the kitchen table, the next he is gone, leaving
Sabine with her memories, an aching depression, a large Flemish rabbit and strange dream visitations from Phan
which she doesn't remember when she awakens.
She is also left with the startling news that Parsifal wasn't all he claimed to be. It's a discovery that sets her on a
journey to take control of her life, and to claim a surprising new love of her own.
"The Magician's Assistant" is the third of Patchett's novels, following the justly acclaimed "The Patron Saint of
Liars" and "Taft." Each novel is markedly different from the others. The characters could not be more disparate,
ranging from the residents of a home for unwed mothers in Kentucky, to a black nightclub owner in Memphis, to a
native Angelena set down in wintry Nebraska. At times it seems Patchett's books aren¹t fiction at all; it is as if they
are oral histories recorded by a kind and forgiving transcriber. I know of no other writer who is able to -- or who is
brave enough to -- tackle the challenge of creating characters of such varied races and backgrounds, making each
one's voice and life so utterly believable.
With "The Magician's Assistant," Patchett once again astounds us with the extraordinarily wise talent she displays.
And, like a good magician should, she does it seamlessly and flawlessly, making it all look so very easy as she takes
our breath away. ~~Laurie Parker