Tuesday, July 31, 2012

book review: The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett

The backstory: The Magician's Assistant was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 1998. Ann Patchett is also one of my favorite authors, and I'm reading all of her books in 2012. When Audra asked if I wanted to read The Magician's Assistant with her, I said "of course!" Read Audra's review of The Magician's Assistant at Unabridged Chick.

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 (my review), Bel Canto (my review), and Run (my review), I was convinced Ann Patchett was one of my literary soul sisters who 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.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 357 pages
Publication date: October 15, 1997
Source: purchased for my Kindle

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9 comments:

  1. Sabine sounds like a very sad character. I think I bought this book awhile back at a library sale, but I don't think I'm in any rush to read it. Great review!

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    1. Anna, yes Sabine was so sad, which usually doesn't bother me, but there was an odd aura of adolescence about her sadness I didn't get. I'll be curious what you think of it when you do get to it!

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  2. I have never really been attracted to this novel, and wouldn't have sought it out, due only partially to the fact that I don't particularly like magicians or their stories. It really sounds like this was Sabine's story though, and yes, it does sound like she was a little bit emotionally immature. I am sorry this one didn't read well for you, but I did appreciate your honest and insightful feedback.

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    1. Zibilee, I think I'm not a big fan of magicians either, as neither this novel nor The Night Circus did much for me.

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  3. Well that's disappointing! I really enjoyed two of the ones you mentioned (I read but can't remember Run, lol), but that definitely is disappointing to read the back list and not feel the same.

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    1. Jenny, I'm hoping this one is the aberration. I still have Taft and The Patron Saint of Liars to read, and I'm curious how I'll fare!

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  4. I loved Bel Canto and The Patron Saint of Liars, and remember reading this one, but that's about it. Nothing what so ever about the plot or characters remained, which is unusual for me. I usually remember *something*, even if just one image, but this one draws a complete blank...

    Do you think that having read a book and forgetting is the same as not having read it at all?

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    1. Alex, I've noticed myself completely forgetting some books too. I'll look at LibraryThing and completely draw blanks. Thank heavens for my reviews to trigger my memory!

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  5. I read this one years ago while on vacation, and while I liked the writing a lot, it wasn't a favorite.

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!