The Magician's Assistant

Ann Patchett

 

A Few Summaries

Comprehension Questions for The Magician's Assistant

A Few Videos -- Beautifully, I Don't Know and Fast Car

 

 

A few summaries...

(The back cover)

From the backflap

When Parsifal, a handsome and charming magician dies suddenly, his widow Sabine – who was also his faithful assistant for twenty years – learns that the family he claims to have lost in a tragic accident is very much alive and well. Sabine is left to unravel his secrets, and the adventure she embarks upon, from sunny Los Angeles to the bitter windswept plains of Nebraska will work its own magic on her. Sabine’s extraordinary tale will capture the heart of its readers just as Sabine herself is captured by her quest.

From Kirkus Reviews

Having produced wonders in two earlier novels (The Patron Saint of Liars, 1992; Taft, 1994), Patchett here conjures up a striking tale of pain and enchantment as an L.A. woman, who lost the love of her life after a few short months of marriage, finds unexpected consolation from her husband's family--a family she never knew he had. When Parsifal the Magician died suddenly of an aneurism, he left his assistant of 22 years, the statuesque Sabine, whom he'd recently married after his longtime gay partner Phan's death, heartbroken and numb. He also left a rude surprise: The family he always spoke of as dead is in fact alive and well in Alliance, Nebraska--and his mother and younger sister are soon on their way to see Sabine. Seemingly decent folk, the two women return home leaving her mystified as to why Parsifal (born Guy Fetters) would have denied their existence. And so, lonely and still paralyzed with grief, Sabine decides to visit them in the dead of a Nebraska winter, hoping for relief and some answers. She gets more than she bargained for when older sister Kitty, herself married to an abusive husband, reveals that Parsifal had accidentally killed his father in trying to keep him from beating their pregnant mother. After he did time in the reformatory, his family lost touch with him completely--until one night when they saw him and Sabine on the Johnny Carson show. The nightly replay of a video of that show became a family ritual of hope, especially for Kitty's two boys, now teenagers as desperate to get away as their uncle had been. Sabine, quite a magician herself, begins a process of healing for them all, and with it comes realization of the hope that the family had long cherished. Masterful in evoking everything from the good life in L.A. to the bleaker one on the Great Plains, and even to dreams of the dead: a saga of redemption tenderly and terrifically told.

 

From The New York Times, November 16, 1997

Parsifal is dead,'' reads the startling opening of ''The Magician's Assistant,'' Ann Patchett's third novel. ''That is the end of the story.'' Since more than 350 pages follow, the reader has been fairly warned to expect surprises and a few contradictions. And sure enough, they begin appearing like doves from silk scarves. Instead of a medieval knight, Parsifal turns out to be a gay magician, the owner of a rug store in Los Angeles who has AIDS and who has just died of a ruptured aneurysm while holding hands with his assistant, Sabine, whom he recently married. ''I love you,'' Parsifal had said. ''I want you to be my widow.''

A contradiction in herself, the beautiful Sabine has rejected many admirers to devote her entire adult life to loving Parsifal, assisting his magic act and finally helping him tend his dying Vietnamese lover, Phan. Now middle-aged and alone in Phan's enormous house in Los Angeles with only a rabbit for company, she slides into a dangerous, somnolent despair, mourning the loss of a man she never had -- which means there is no need ever to quit mourning him. Like Sleeping Beauty, she has fallen under a spell that seems impossible to break.

This curiously fraught situation becomes more so once it is revealed that Parsifal had a secret history. The tragic, privileged background in Connecticut he had described to Sabine was all smoke and mirrors; it turns out he grew up as Guy Fetters in Alliance, Neb., where his mother and two sisters still live, though he hadn't seen them for decades. When the frumpy Dot Fetters and her daughter Bertie show up in Los Angeles to meet Guy's wife and see his grave -- right next to Phan's -- what began as a complicated story becomes almost baroque. The Fetterses prove to be tolerant, caring folks. Alarmed by her unhappiness, they invite Sabine to visit them in tiny Alliance, and she surprises herself by going, hoping for some sort of connection with the Parsifal she has just discovered. ''When Parsifal died she lost the rest of his life, but now she had stumbled on 18 years. Eighteen untouched years that she could have; early, forgotten volumes of her favorite work. A childhood that could be mined month by month. Parsifal would not get older, but what about younger?''

The difficulty with this unusual romance is that it is never clear why Sabine loves Parsifal so obsessively. He was generous and good-hearted, but so are his mother and sisters and nearly everyone else she encounters, including Phan, who regularly visits Sabine's dreams to report on the afterlife and advise her on her quest. We are reminded several times that Parsifal was a magician, and ''without magicians, the assistants were lost,'' but that answer isn't satisfying either, even for a novel that insists on becoming a fairy tale. Sabine remains an enigma, a woman entranced by her own enchantment. Which explains why she never generates enough sympathy to make her predicament truly absorbing.

Yet the kindliness of ''The Magician's Assistant'' is beguiling, and Patchett is an adroit, graceful writer who knows enough tricks to keep her story entertaining. She is especially practiced at the razzle-dazzle of odd juxtapositions. As Sabine notes: ''People long to be amazed, even as they fight it. Once you amaze them, you own them.'' Few readers will be amazed that Sabine's search for Parsifal in Nebraska leads her to find love unexpectedly or that by posthumously reuniting Parsifal with his mother and sisters, she helps unchain them from a painful past. But it is still gratifying to watch Patchett pull each rabbit out of the hat.

The real appeal of ''The Magician's Assistant'' lies in the small, accumulating ways in which Sabine and the Fetters family assist one another out of isolation and sorrow. By the end, they have all been somewhat transformed -- yes, by the magic of love. If it is hard not to squint at some of the flashy paradoxes Patchett uses to construct her narrative, then perhaps a struggle with credulity is precisely what she wants to encourage. Improbable relationships can flourish; strange havens do exist. Becoming accustomed to sad endings may be more naive than believing, now and then, in happily ever after. ~~Suzanne Berne

From BookPage Fiction Review

What is a magician's assistant to do when her magician dies? If she's strong and lucky, she learns to create her own magic, just as Ann Patchett does with her masterful new novel "The Magician's Assistant."

Sabine had worked with and loved Parsifal for more than 20 years, since she had put down her cocktail tray at the age of 19 to step up onto the stage in response to Parsifal's glamorous smile and beckoning hand. But Parsifal was gay; he loved Phan, the soft-spoken Vietnamese software designer who shared Parsifal's life and who became Sabine's dearest friend. Having decided long ago that a platonic relationship with Parsifal was better than living without him, Sabine contented herself with learning the new acts, sharing a deep, almost familial bond with Phan and Parsifal and building her painstakingly detailed architectural models.

But then Phan dies of AIDS, and Parsifal is diagnosed with the disease. Ironically, it is under these tragic circumstances that Sabine achieves the impossible dream of marriage to Parsifal, though the marriage is one in name only, Parsifal's way of insuring that Sabine will be financially secure after he is gone. Parsifal's own death is as surprising as one of his magic tricks -- one minute he is sitting at the kitchen table, the next he is gone, leaving Sabine with her memories, an aching depression, a large Flemish rabbit and strange dream visitations from Phan which she doesn't remember when she awakens.

She is also left with the startling news that Parsifal wasn't all he claimed to be. It's a discovery that sets her on a journey to take control of her life, and to claim a surprising new love of her own.

"The Magician's Assistant" is the third of Patchett's novels, following the justly acclaimed "The Patron Saint of Liars" and "Taft." Each novel is markedly different from the others. The characters could not be more disparate, ranging from the residents of a home for unwed mothers in Kentucky, to a black nightclub owner in Memphis, to a native Angelena set down in wintry Nebraska. At times it seems Patchett's books aren¹t fiction at all; it is as if they are oral histories recorded by a kind and forgiving transcriber. I know of no other writer who is able to -- or who is brave enough to -- tackle the challenge of creating characters of such varied races and backgrounds, making each one's voice and life so utterly believable.

With "The Magician's Assistant," Patchett once again astounds us with the extraordinarily wise talent she displays. And, like a good magician should, she does it seamlessly and flawlessly, making it all look so very easy as she takes our breath away. ~~Laurie Parker

Printer-Friendly Summaries

 

 

Ann Patchett and her dog, Rose.

 

 

The Magician's Assistant Comprehension Questions

The Magician's Assistant, Questions 1

The Magician's Assistant, Questions 2

The Magician's Assistant, Questions 3

The Magician's Assistant, Questions 4

 

A Few Videos

 

OK, so here are a few songs from class.

This first song is about a woman who is attracted to her male friend, but he's gay. Her reaction and Sabine's reaction, however, are quite different. The song was written and performed by Jay Brannan. The words are below.

 

Beautifully
Words & Music by Jay Brannan

Every time he goes she dies
Every time she comes she cries
He was her long bright future
In the middle of a long, dark road
He loved her, but he wasn’t too sure
If he could return the love she showed
When she said, “My Love extends beyond the realm of being friends.”
He kissed her head and quietly said

“It's not that you’re not beautiful,
You’re just not beautiful to me,”
She said, “How beautiful do I have to be?
When I look in the mirror, you’re the only thing I see,
And I have loved you beautifully."

Well, ten thousand tears passed by
But she never let him see her cry
And he called up down one night
He said, “Let’s get in the car and just drive.”
He talked a lot about loneliness
But why, she didn’t know
And some song about Memphis was playin’ on the radio
She said, “Let’s stop the car and slow dance,
won’t you just give me a chance?"
He took her hand, and hoped she’d understand

“It's not that you’re not beautiful,
You’re just not beautiful to me,”
She said, “How beautiful do I have to be?
When I look in the mirror, you’re the only thing I see
And I have loved you beautifully."

She’ll burn that bridge
And build a house
And swallow the smoke in her mouth
And then she’ll feel the burn
And then make the choice
To put the fire in her voice

“It's not that you’re not beautiful,
You’re just not beautiful to me,”
She said, “How beautiful do I have to be?
When I look in the mirror, you’re the only thing I see
And I have loved you beautifully."

 

 

Here are 2 videos of the same song. It's called I Don't Know and it's by Lisa Hannigan, who is an Irish singer-songwriter. You got the lyrics in class. Just a little comment on how it is when you're attracted to someone and you don't even know why!

 

 

 

 

Here's a great song: Fast Car by Tracy Chapman.
Just like with the Lisa Hannigan video, there's an official video and a live version. The words are below.
On a side note, I prefer the live version, on the right.

 

   

 

Fast Car
Words & Music by Tracy Chapman

You got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere

Anyplace is better
Starting from zero got nothing to lose
Maybe we'll make something
But me myself I got nothing to prove

You got a fast car
And I got a plan to get us out of here
I been working at the convenience store
Managed to save just a little bit of money
We won't have to drive too far
Just 'cross the border and into the city
You and I can both get jobs
And finally see what it means to be living

You see my old man's got a problem
He live with the bottle that's the way it is
He says his body's too old for working
I say his body's too young to look like his
My mama went off and left him
She wanted more from life than he could give
I said somebody's got to take care of him
So I quit school and that's what I did

You got a fast car
But is it fast enough so we can fly away
We gotta make a decision
We leave tonight or live and die this way

I remember we were driving, driving in your car
The speed so fast I felt like I was drunk
City lights lay out before us
And your arm felt nice wrapped 'round my shoulder
And I had a feeling that I belonged
And I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone

You got a fast car
And we go cruising to entertain ourselves
You still ain't got a job
And I work in a market as a checkout girl
I know things will get better
You'll find work and I'll get promoted
We'll move out of the shelter
Buy a big house and live in the suburbs

I remember we were driving, driving in your car
The speed so fast I felt like I was drunk
City lights lay out before us
And your arm felt nice wrapped 'round my shoulder
And I had a feeling that I belonged
And I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone

You got a fast car
And I got a job that pays all our bills
You stay out drinking late at the bar
See more of your friends than you do of your kids
I'd always hoped for better
Thought maybe together you and me would find it
I got no plans I ain't going nowhere
So take your fast car and keep on driving

You got a fast car
But is it fast enough so you can fly away
You gotta make a decision
You leave tonight or live and die this way

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