Determined to read all of Ann Patchett’s books during 2012, I never thought to read them in order of publication. I went into this project already loving State of Wonder and Bel Canto. These are high benchmarks to be sure. It’s no wonder that her early work doesn’t reach the standard of these two later titles, but this particular book almost feels as if it were written by someone else.
The Magician’s Assistant is the story of Sabine, left adrift after the death of her beloved Parsifal, the Magician. Parsifal was in fact her husband, despite the fact that he was gay and desperately in love with (and later grieving for) is life partner, Phan. After Parsifal’s death, Sabine discovers that the family he told her was dead and gone is very much alive and they want to meet her. She ends up moving in with them in Alliance, Nebraska, where she uncovers the truths of Parsifal’s childhood and the damaged people left behind.
Does it sound melodramatic? It is.
But, and this is a big but, Patchett is a good writer. Despite episodes of histrionics, she keeps the plot and characters on this side of reality. In some ways the book feels dated, very much the product of the 1990s. On the other hand, Sabine feels very real to me. I understand her grief and her need to live among Parsifal’s childhood possessions, as if meeting him anew.
But the plot developments once Sabine is in Nebraska felt forced. I just wasn’t buying the actions of Sabine or Parsifal’s family. And, surprisingly, I never felt anchored to that location. Whereas Patchett normally excels in her descriptions of setting, I could never really get anything but snow from the second half of the novel.
I have to say this is my least favorite of all the Patchett I’ve read. I’m glad it wasn’t my first novel of hers.
More posts from my Ann Patchett Project: