The Magician's Assistant

by Ann Patchett

Paperback, 1998

Call number




Harcourt Brace (2004), Edition: 1st, 357 pages


Sabine-twenty years a magician's assistant to her handsome, charming husband-is suddenly a widow. In the wake of his death, she finds he has left a final trick; a false identity and a family allegedly lost in a tragic accident but now revealed as very much alive and well. Named as heirs in his will, they enter Sabine's life and set her on an adventure of unraveling his secrets, from sunny Los Angeles to the windswept plains of Nebraska, that will work its own sort of magic on her.

User reviews

LibraryThing member mrstreme
For most of Sabine's adult life, she was in love with her employer and best friend, Parsifal. They travelled together as a magic act and later as antiques experts. They shared an uncommon bond of friendship. Sabine knew her love would always be unrequited. Why? Because Parsifal was gay - and his
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true love was a man named Phan.

Sadly, both Phan and Parsifal had AIDS, and as Sabine prepared to say good-bye to them both, Parsifal does something remarkable: he married Sabine, ensuring her financial freedom for the rest of her life. Parsifal, however, had secrets too, namely a mom and two sisters in Nebraska who had not seen him in more than 20 years. When they learned about his death, Parsifal's mom and sister came to Los Angeles to meet Sabine. Once united, Sabine and Parsifal's family pieced together his mysterious life.

The Magician's Assistant was a tale like none other. Indeed, a woman married to a gay man near the end of his life was an unusual story development. However, Ann Patchett had more tricks up her sleeve. Incredibly loving and flawed, Parsifal's family showed Sabine what life was like for young Parsifal (then called Guy), uncovering more secrets. Together, they mourn his death and help heal old wounds.

Wonderfully told, The Magician's Assistant was a moving story of love, friendship, family ties and estranged relationships. Each of the story's twists and turns were unpredictable, and while Patchett left the ending open-ended, I was pleased with the strength of friendship among this group of women. Their mutual love for Parsifal brought them together, but their love for each other made them even closer. The Magician's Assistant was a beautiful book, and once again, Patchett swept me away with her magical storytelling.
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LibraryThing member nomadreader
The basics: At the beginning of the novel, Parcifal, the magician of the novel's title, dies suddenly. Sabine, the assistant of the title, is left to grieve.

My thoughts: After having loved State of Wonder, Bel Canto, and Run, I was convinced Ann Patchett was one of my literary soul sisters who
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could do no wrong. Sadly, I didn't connect with The Magician's Assistant at all, and I struggled to even finish the novel. My problems with this novel really begin with Sabine. While I'm normally an empathetic reader, I found myself instead wanting to shake Sabine. She fell in love with Parcifal years ago and worked as his assistant for more than twenty years. Parcifal, however, is gay, and he was in love with Phan, who died of AIDS. Parcifal was also sick with AIDS, and he and Sabine were preparing for his death, but something else killed him. As Sabine is dealing with her grief, I failed to understand her weakness. Her behavior seemed to be that of a teenager or woman in her early twenties. Patchett kept reminding me Sabine was in her forties, and I couldn't help but feel sad for her: she married a man who only loved her as a friend and has nothing else after his death but his money and the money of Phan.

As pitiful as Sabine was, I still kept hoping to connect with this novel. When Sabine learns Parcifal's mother is in fact alive and well in Nebraska, she welcomes her and Parcifal's sister when they visit Los Angeles. I hoped the preposterousness of this situation would carry humor and grace, but instead, it just seemed sad and somewhat far-fetched all around. Despite these long-held secrets about Parcifal (his family still knows him as Guy), something always felt off about the people; they never felt real either. There were a few digs at Midwestern life I didn't buy either, but I could have overlooked some of the caricature if I felt the emotional depth I have in Patchett's other works.

Favorite passage: "Most people can't be magicians for the same reason they can't be criminals. They have guilty souls. Deception doesn't come naturally. They want to be caught."

The verdict: Despite my love of Patchett's writing, I never connected with Sabine in this story, and I never felt truly engaged with the narrative. While her writing excelled, plot and character development were lacking, and overall, this novel left me cold.
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LibraryThing member nicole_a_davis
I was hooked by the premise--how intriguing to open with a main character's death. As the story unfolded though, I got less and less interested and found it harder and harder to believe. I couldn't identify with the main character as I got to know her better--she just seemed stupid. Who would
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dedicate her life to someone who couldn't and wouldn't ever reciprocate her love? By the time she arrives in Nebraska and meets the rest of the family, the plot was predictable. At the end when she says something to the effect of "why didn't I think of this before?" I wanted to wring her neck, because I had thought of it 200 pages ago! I was glad to be done with it.
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
Ann Patchett writes well. The characters here, Sabine and Parsifal are not your common protagonists. Sabine is by all accounts stunning and smart; unfortunately, the man she has loved for 20 years is gay. They however have a special, though platonic relationship where Phan, her husband's partner is
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also involved. The book divides into two sections, the first in LA and the 2nd in Nebraska . It is in LA where Sabine suffers the loss of Parsifal. She then discovers by way of the will, that there is a family in the midwest ( Mother- Dot, two sisters, Kitty and Bertie) who she never knew. Parsifal had lied about most of his background. Sabine's exploration of this family and their eventual closeness make for a good story. There are memorable scenes, like how the family in Nebraska watches the video of Johnny Carson - the one appearance of thier prodigal son, as a family ritual. Also a scene where Parsifal's abusive father locks him in the refrigerator helps to explain the violence that will banish the budding magician. Sabine gets very close to the new family and in a sense extends her relationship with Parsifal by discovering his past. There were many good reasons for him to leave and this becomes part of Sabine's journey of knowledge. As she grows close with this new family, she becomes stronger and able to do her own magic. In the end her biggest trick of all may be to help Kitty, an abused wife, disappear.
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
Audiobook.......I thoroughly enjoyed this Ann Patchett novel. In fact, it may be my favorite of hers so far. The story works on multiple levels as does a good magic show, and the theme of the sleight of hand we all employ in our presentation to others is deftly woven throughout the story. The
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characters, including the magician's assistant herself, discover untold truths and debunk family myths and in the end develop new strengths because of both experiences. The hand is quicker than the eye in more ways than one!
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LibraryThing member punxsygal
After the death of her magician husband, Parsifal, Sabine learns that the family he claimed died in a car accident is very much alive and well. Soon, two members of the family come to see her and try to learn about the man who left their life many years ago. Stories start to come out. During the
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winter Sabine travels to Parsifal's hometown in Nebraska to try to find the man who was her husband. It is a slow, drawn out revealing in an otherwise ho-hum book. The ending was vague and the characters rather uninteresting.
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LibraryThing member bkwurm
I'm a very big fan of Ann Patchett; her book "Bel Canto" may be one of my favorite pieces of contemporary fiction. "The Magician's Assistant" may not have been quite as good as "Bel Canto", but it was still a delightful read. One of the best parts of Patchett's writing is that her characters are
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always fully developed, and she is able to place you inside the mind of each character with no more than a few words. It was no different with Sabine, the main character of "The Magician's Assistant." The story itself is far more leisurely than Patchett's other novels. It is the story of a lost love; of grief, remembrance, and a slow discovery. That said, I was not once tempted to set the book aside for another one. Only the end left me slightly disappointed--a few ends were left hanging loose, and not knowing drives me crazy. ;-)
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LibraryThing member cms519
This was a great beach book- an interesting plot, rich characters, and lots of questions to be answered.

I particularly loved reading the sections about Sabine's dreams. Also, the section when Kitty explains the role Walmart plays in the lives of the people of the town is wonderful- the best use of
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Walmart in a book since Where the Heart Is.
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LibraryThing member Pmaurer
As a Nebraskan, I felt her description of the state and the people very stereotypical. Hated the ending-it was like she just got tired of writing and quit! Not a great fan of this author..
LibraryThing member KatS11
Easy read, fairly predictable. I thought the stuff about the magic was the most interesting. Parsifal's family was normal and consequently uninteresting. I felt a lack of closure at the end.
LibraryThing member lycomayflower
The novel begins shortly after the death of Sabine's husband, Parsifal. He was gay, and his lover, Phan, has also died recently. Parsifal married Sabine so she could inherit from him with less fuss; Sabine probably married Parsifal because she once loved him, and, in the later years of their
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relationship, considered him her best friend. Parsifal was a magician and Sabine his assistant. When Parsifal's will reveals that he has a mother and two sisters living in Nebraska, about whom he never told Sabine, she begins to discover things about Parisal's past that both clarify and confuse her understanding of who he was.

Patchett's writing is wonderful, and she puts her characters and settings (Los Angles and Alliance, Nebraska) on the page with such simple clarity and seemingly effortless attention to detail that you never once question the reality of them. Magic tricks and the world of magicians weave through the story, adding interest and some thematic heft. The secrets in Parsifal's past always work to reveal more about the novel's characters, never exist for drama or shock value. An engaging and compelling read, though one which ends perhaps a bit abruptly, without a fully satisfying resolution to all of the story threads.
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LibraryThing member shihtzu
This is a rather strange story. The big question while reading it was: Why would a beautiful woman like Sabine - successful, intelligent, raised by loving parents - spend her entire adult life with a gay man who could not love her fully? But the reader is caught up in the story nonetheless - Ann
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Patchett's prose and character development are unsurpassed. The book certainly held my interest.
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LibraryThing member macii
This novel hooks you from the first line, just as Patchett's Bel Canto did: "Parsifal is dead. That is the end of the story." But for Sabine, she discovers it really is only the beginning.

It is an interesting and almost odd plot line. Sabine fell in love with Parsifal twenty-some years ago. She was
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his faithful friend and assistant-you see Parsifal was a magician. The thing is Parsifal didn't love women. After Parsifal's lover, Phan, dies, he and Sabine marry so that Sabine can inherit all that is his without any problems. After Parsifal's death, Sabine discovers that as well as she knew him, she knew nothing of his past . . . and she will now discover it.

There were a couple odd scenes in here and I'm glad Patchett didn't dwell on them. The focus of this story is the loss that Sabine feels after Parsifal's death and how she begins to live again. The characters are deep and intriguing, wounded and lost.

Patchett draws you in and keeps you interested. I never wanted to put the book down because at every point along the way there is something new to discover in the plot and about each character.

There are some weird dream sequences that help move the plot along, in any other book this wouldn't have worked, but Patchett does it masterfully and it makes perfect sense with the book's tone. As you read, you feel lost and numb like Sabine, and then as she begins to feel again, you can feel where Sabine is at along her healing process.

Again, Patchett flops on the ending. It is better than Bel Canto's ending because it is not so out there, but it brings no closure. The closing scene could have been placed in the series of events and would have fit there as well.

Despite the ending, Patchett has still created an amazing read that takes you from Los Angeles to Nebraska and into the heart of a woman learning to live with loss.
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LibraryThing member mostlyliterary
My "reading" of this book was a little choppy, so I hope to return to it again someday to help fill in some gaps. (I experimented with listening to this in audio-book format on a long international flight. Problem was, I dozed a bit here and there, and didn't successfully rewind in every instance.
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I read the last 4th of it or so in book format.) But overall, I really liked this book. The characters were melancholy, but intriguing. The notion of love between a gay man and a straight woman, and a subsequent unconventional marriage -- these characters and their situation really pulled me in. Sabine's character was perpetually emotionally distant, which made it hard to connect with her at times, but I grew to really care for and respect her during her journey to reconnect with Parcifal's family. It was a very interesting premise, and I loved a lot of the details of the magic acts, Sabine's building of miniature houses, the relationship between Parcifal and his Vietnameses male lover, Parcifal's relationship with Sabine, and Sabine's emotional awakening. Not at all clear what would become of these characters, but the story has stayed with me, and triggered my imagination to wonder about them.
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LibraryThing member smallwonder56
Back when this book was first published it was very popular. I was on a list of women reading books by women writers and they gushed over how good this book was. Such was my contrary nature that I was put off by books everybody else gushed about.

I need to do something about my contrary nature.

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loved this book. Patchett aptly describes a loving but dysfunctional family and a daughter-in-law's (albeit a non-standard daughter-in-law, herself) attempts to heal their pan as she heals her own. Sabine is the magician's assistant for Parsifal, a gay magician who in 20 years, never reveals his real past to her. He's honest with her about his love for men, his partner, Phan, in particular, but he never tells her that he has a mother and sisters who live in Nebraska. After his partner's death, Parsifal marries Sabine--a sign of love for the woman he's loved platonically for years. He dies soon after, leaving Sabine to put together the pieces of his past and lead everyone involved--including herself--to healing.

The magic doesn't stop after the magician dies. In fact, that's where the real magic starts. Phan visits Sabine in dreams, helping her get over Parsifal's death.

It's a wonderful book, full of healing, and mistakes and forgiveness and love. You find your family where your heart is.
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LibraryThing member lalalibrarian
This book completely sucked me in and wouldn't let me go. I love the dream sequences and the ending was perfect.
LibraryThing member KinnicChick
The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchet was an incredible first read from an author I've heard nothing but wonderful things about over the past couple of years. It was a little like it came out of the blue because I've never heard of her and then suddenly, she's all I'm hearing about. And so I sat
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stubbornly putting up my guard as with so many other popular things and refused to give in to the hype (well, as I put it).

Well, this year with the 888 challenge I finally decided to give it a try and stop being ridiculous (again) about yet another topic. I picked up this particular novel and put it in the TBR pile.

I began reading it slowly, letting it sink in. After thirty pages of reading it this way, I decided that this was the story (for a myriad of reasons) that I should have written ten years ago *laughing at myself*. I wouldn't have done it nearly the justice she did, of course. Two days later (would have been faster if I didn't have life interrupting me!) What a beautiful tale.

The Magician's Assistant begins with the sudden death of a young, handsome magician, Parsifal, and is the story of his widow Sabine, his assistant for over twenty years. She learns that his family, who Parsifal said had been killed in an accident but who she learns are alive and well and living in Nebraska. This story is her story, and what she does once she learns they are alive.

It is a story about magic and love and family and how we cope with what we are dealt with.

I give it four and a half stars and recommend it highly. I am also planning to read more of Ms. Patchett's work very soon.
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LibraryThing member jimtrue
Effortless read. Ann Patchett's writing and full development of her characters (even those characters no longer living), pulled me in and kept me with them from the beginning to the very end.
LibraryThing member KathyWoodall
Sabine is with her husband, Parsifal, when he dies suddenly while having an MRI scan done. Although they haven't been married long she has been his assistant in his magic act for 20 years.

Not long after Parsifals death, Sabine finds out that Parsifal never told her the truth about his family. He
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had told Sabine that his family died in a car crash years ago. The truth is he in fact has a mother and 2 sisters still living in Nebraska.

As Sabine sets out to discover the truth about the man she loved for so long she finds out a lot of buried family secrets. In her search for the truth she discovers some surprising one about herself.

Honestly I was truly disappointed with with this book. If it wasn't for the fact I wanted to find out what happened in Parsifal childhood I would have given up on the book early on. This books horribly slow at times. I didn't care for all the dreams sequences with Phan. The book had to much of a surreal feel for my taste.
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LibraryThing member hitchhiker70
I love this book. The pov character is so appealing, and the writing is just stunning. One of the few new books I want to stay with way past its ending.
LibraryThing member canalrat
Bel Canto was my best read of the year in whichever year I read it, so I was looking forward to reading The Magician's Assisstant.

Both books have a performance theme, a complex range of relationships and a strong sense of dramatic suspense.

It's good, but not as absorbing as Bel Canto
LibraryThing member kellyn
This captivating story carried me until the end when I felt somewhat cheated. I turned the last page expecting the story to have been continued. The abrupt ending left me feeling confused and unsatisfied. With this caveat I loved the book and found the characters "hovering" around me for days
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LibraryThing member the_awesome_opossum
For the past twenty years, Sabine has been on the sidelines: the magician's assistant, there for looks and misdirection but "she was never the reason." The same holds true in her own life, as she has been hopelessly in love with her gay magician Parsifal, living platonically with him and his
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partner Phan. But when Parsifal dies unexpectedly, Sabine is on her own - nobody's assistant. Furthermore, Parsifal's death reveals that he lied about his family; they did not die in a car crash but still live in the same tiny town in Nebraska where Parsifal grew up. Sabine, without a purpose other than to know, must follow up on this news.

The small town inertia of Alliance, Nebraska serves as a foil for Sabine's former life in her glamorous LA home. Yet this tension drives character growth: the ambiguous interplay between past and present. Nobody can fully discard the past (as much as Parsifal tried and Sabine might grievingly long to) without throwing away an instrumental part of themselves, for better or for worse. On the flip side, to what extent can one cling to the past before it becomes inhibiting?

Sabine's arrival stirs her Nebraskan inlaws, who believe her to be a minor celebrity. The thrilling impossibility of magic mirrors the family's thrilling impossibility of change: if only she could leave her abusive husband, if only she were more confident in her relationship, if only the town were interested in expanding beyond its small town culture (read: a Walmart and little else). Yet change is scary, a drastic measure sometimes only forced by drastic times. And the equilibrium of continuity with the past and yielding to the future is difficult but necessary to strike.
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LibraryThing member TeamStraub
Like Bel Canto, arguably Ann Patchett's best-known work, the Magician's Assistant is an excellent example of the author's ability to write characters that grab the reader's attention and refuse to let go.

The story, in an overly simplistic nutshell, revolves around a widow learning her husband's
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secret past. With the first pages picking up the story just after her husband's death, the reader is aligned with Sabine, the widow, and is by her side through the sometimes very emotional book.

The author's ability to grant the reader an intimate knowledge of the main character keeps the reader glued to the story just as if one was hearing this story first-hand from a trusted friend.
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LibraryThing member petterw
The Magician's Assistant is a decent read, not even close to the quality of Patchett's Bel Canto, but still worth reading. It is a truly original story with believable characters and partly a good plot. The problem is that the novel is too shallow, without a real premise. The characters stay the
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same from beginning till end, and although it is interesting to follow them and their trials and tribulations, too little is actually happening to move the reader. The lack of depth and lack of velocity is a bit of surprise, because the strength of Bel Canto is exactly depth, velocity and not the least a fabulous plot. I will nevertheless gladly give Ann Patchett another chance.
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Women's Prize for Fiction (Longlist — 1998)




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