The Magician's Assistant

The Magician's Assistant

by Ann Patchett

Anne Ferber (08/02/11): Ann Patchett is a wonderful writer. Even when her story lines are a bit bizarre, her characters are so warm and humane that you wish you could befriend them to continue the conversations. Sabine is the titular assistant. Although she has many talents, some technical and some more subtle, her greatest characteristic is her humanity. She assists, then lives with, then, after twenty two years, marries Parsifal, a beautiful gay man who is a successful rug dealer, but practices magnificent magic as a an avocation. He adores Phan a Vietnamese young man who has made a fortune in Silicon Valley by inventing a viral computer game called Knick Knack. The three are all so devoted to each other that when Phan learns he as AIDS, he buys three adjoining plots at Forrest Lawn. Their lives in sunny California are further comforted by a large house, pool, garden and luscious d飯r which they share until Phan passes away and Parsifal, who also has AIDS, suddenly dies of an aneurism. Sabine is left alone, and her depression and loneliness seem unbearable.

Parsifal, a generous man, married Sabine to ensure that she would inherit his sizable estate without question. She is shocked to learn from his will that he has a mother and two sisters who live in Alliance, Nebraska. Whenever mention of his family was made, he always assured her that they were from Connecticut and all died in a car accident. She arranges contact through her lawyer and then is somewhat surprised to learn that they want to come and visit his grave. She cannot believe that there was no attempt to communicate with him all these many years.

Once Dot Fetters and her daughter, Bertie, arrive in California, Sabine is handed one shock after another. Her marvelous Parsifal grew up as Guy Fetters in an abusive household in Alliance where he spent time in a reformatory and finally escaped the Midwest at the age of 18. The difference between Sabine and these Nebraskans cannot be exaggerated. At first they seem unable to even utter a comprehensive exchange as Sabine drives them around Los Angeles, and finally to Forrest Lawn where they begin to realize mutual humanity in each other's disconsolate sadness regarding Parsifal/Guy. Surprisingly, they begin to feel familial emotions (Patchett's favorite theme) and Sabine is invited to Nebraska to attend Bertie's wedding which will take place in a few weeks.

Her stay in Nebraska opens Sabine's eyes to the manifold lives she has barely heard about, much less experienced. Her own childhood had been spent in blissful innocence with adoring parents who remain to this day her greatest comfort. Now she is given a front row seat to dysfunction and silent repression, secrets causing families only heartbreak and terror. Her relationships with these people only strengthen her own humanity and open possibilities she never thought possible.
Rating: ****

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