The Magician’s Assistant
(1997) a novel by Ann Patchett, centers on a widow who discovers that her husband, a magician, may have been hiding a whole other life from her. The book was well received upon publication and received a nomination for the 1998 Orange Prize for Fiction. In 2010, Patchett cofounded her own bookstore, Parnassus Books, and in 2012, she featured on TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World List. She specializes in writing literary and contemporary fiction for adults, and she’s best known for her poetic, rhythmic writing style.
For 20 years, Sabine has been an assistant to a popular magician, Parsifal. He’s gay, and he’s never hidden his sexuality from her; they’ve grown closer over the years, and Parsifal loves her as a friend. He marries her so that she can legally inherit all his fortune and his property when he dies so that she will always be financially secure. Sabine knows that Parsifal’s family are dead, as they died in a tragic accident many years ago, and so there’s no one else to inherit his things.
The main problem for Sabine is that, although Parsifal marries her out of friendly affection, she loves him romantically. She secretly hopes that they can be a proper married couple, even though she knows it’s unfair to expect this from him. However, before Sabine can confess the true depth of her feelings for Parsifal, he passes away. Sabine is left heartbroken and lost, with nowhere to turn.
To help her come to terms with Parsifal’s death and rediscover her own identity, she starts going through his belongings and packing them away. She doesn’t immediately notice anything strange. However, she is contacted by the lawyer responsible for distributing Parsifal’s estate. Sabine finds out that Parsifal has been lying to her and that this isn’t even his real name. He is really called Guy Fetters, and his family is very much alive.
Sabine is devastated because she realizes that she doesn’t know this man at all, yet she’s spent so many years of her life with him. She decides that she wants to know all she can about Parsifal’s real identity and the family he’s always hid from her. Sabine goes on a road trip to meet some of these relatives and to find out if they knew anything about her—and to see whom she’s sharing Parsifal’s estate with.
She meets Parsifal’s sister, Kitty, in Nebraska. Kitty looks like him, and Sabine finds it painful to look at her. What becomes clear as the novel progresses is that Sabine is attracted to Kitty, and she doesn’t know how to deal with these feelings. Sabine always assumed that she was heterosexual, and now she can’t help wondering if she’s been lying to herself all along.
Sabine’s character arc centers on her relationship with herself. She has always lived vicariously through Parsifal, never fulfilling her own ambitions. For example, she once wanted to be an architect; now she makes small-scale models as a sideline hobby. She has only ever seen herself through Parsifal’s eyes for twenty years, and she doesn’t know who she is anymore.
With the help of Kitty and the rest of Parsifal’s family, she begins to confront what’s happened and how artificial her life has been. She sees now that she has allowed herself to be part of an illusion Parsifal orchestrated—he was a magician, after all, and he was very good at deception. The greatest challenge Sabine faces is cutting through this “smoke and mirrors,” asking herself why she wanted to play along with his illusion in the first place.
The more time she spends with Parsifal’s family, the more she talks about her feelings. She knew that Parsifal had a lover, Phan and that she was holding onto the hope of something that could never materialize. Moreover, she knows she’ll never find out why Parsifal told her the lies that he did, keeping her at arm’s length throughout their entire relationship. Sabine realizes that two people can view the same set of circumstances very differently, which can be dangerous. We all, to some extent, create our own illusions which we must cut through eventually.
At the end of the book, Kitty and her children need somewhere to stay when she leaves her abusive husband. Sabine has to return home to LA to start looking for a new job and a new life. However, she doesn’t want to lose contact with Parsifal’s family because they’ve taught her so much about herself. She invites Kitty and her children to stay in LA with her for a while, at least until they figure something else out. Grateful, Kitty takes her up on this offer.The Magician’s Assistant
is open-ended. Sabine returns to LA with the promise of starting a new life, but it’s not clear how she will achieve that when she’s still so connected to Parsifal’s family and a woman who looks very much like him. Sabine is perhaps not as ready to break through the illusion as she wants to believe.