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The Magician's Assistant, Ann Patchett, Harcourt, 1997, 357 pp
I had twice tried to start this novel in the past and had never gotten beyond the first few pages. The first paragraph is just two short sentences:
"PARSIFAL IS DEAD. That is the end of the story."
The second paragraph is a good half a page:
"The technician and the nurse rushed in from their glass booth. Where there had been a perfect silence a minute before there was now tremendous activity, the straining sounds of two men unexpectedly thrown into hard work. The technician stepped between Parsifal and Sabine, and she had no choice but to let go of Parsifal's hand. When they counted to three and then lifted Parsifal's body from the metal tongue of the MRI machine and onto the gurney, his head fell back, his mouth snapping open with no reflexes to protect it. Sabine saw all of his beautiful teeth, the two gold crowns on the back molars shining brightly in the overhead fluorescent light. The heavy green sheet they had given him for warmth got stuck in the guardrail lock. The nurse struggled with it for a second and then threw up his hands, as if to say they didn't have time for this, when in fact they had all the time in the world. Parsifal was dead and would be dead whether help was found in half a minute or in an hour or a day. They rushed him around the corner and down the hall without a word to Sabine. The only sound was the quick squeak of rubber wheels and rubber soles against the linoleum."
I had just read 217 words, full of description, with two oddly named characters and all I knew for sure was that one of them is dead. Both times I was not sure if I wanted to know more.
This time I was reading it for a reading group meeting, our holiday party, for which I was hosting. I had two and a half days to clean and decorate the house, make a main dish, and read the book. No choice but to power on.
Rereading that second paragraph for the fourth time as I started to write this review, having finished and loved the book, it makes all the sense in the world. Now I know those two characters almost as well as I know some of my friends. I know why they have such odd names, why Parsifal died, and why Sabine comes across in that paragraph as almost a mere onlooker. I still feel that was a risky way to begin a novel.
The Magician's Assistant is Ann Patchett's third novel. I read Bel Canto first, many years ago, and became an instant fan. I next read The Patron Saint of Liars, her first novel and loved it so much I could barely breathe through the whole book. I have always loved her unlikely combinations of people and situations, her theme of how unlikely most of life is but how it often works out anyway. I now think, having read six of her seven novels, that The Magician's Assistant is, if not weaker than the others, at least less successful.
The novel has no chapters. It is a 357 page long story. Magic, AIDS, murder, death, people who disappear, who pretend to be someone else, abusive men, Los Angeles vs the mid-west prairie, homosexuality, siblings, Jews, and more all crammed in. There are equally powerful scenes of love and of horrific events. It ends with a scene as confusing as the opening one.
Yet, I loved it! I think loving Ann Patchett is similar to loving one's family. You take the best, the not so good, and even the bad, as they come but you don't give up on the family. Even if you do give up on certain members for a while, you eventually go back. In fact, The Magician's Assistant is exactly about that.
Funny thing: I have since come across several other readers who had to start the book more than once to get through it. If you are already a fan, I promise you, it is worth reading.
(The Magician's Assistant is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)