The Magician's Assistant

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"A secretive magician?s death becomes the catalyst for his partner?s journey self-discovery in this ?enchanting? book (San Francisco Chronicle) ?that is something of a magic trick in itself? (Newsweek).
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 claimed to have lost in a tragic ...

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"A secretive magician’s death becomes the catalyst for his partner’s journey self-discovery in this “enchanting” book (San Francisco Chronicle) “that is something of a magic trick in itself” (Newsweek).
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 claimed to have lost in a tragic accident is very much alive and well. Sabine is left to unravel his secrets, and the journey she takes, from sunny Los Angeles to the bitter windswept plains of Nebraska, will work its own magic on her. Sabine's extraordinary tale, “with its big dreams, vast spaces, and disparate realities lying side by side” captures the hearts of its readers and “proves to be the perfect place for miraculous transformations” (The New Yorker). "

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Editorial Reviews

This beautifully realized tale suggests that even a woman skilled in the art of magic cannot fool herself.
Patchett's third novel is something of a magic trick itself -- a 90s love story wrought with the same grace and classic charm of a 19th-century novel...We read Patchett's novel with the same pleasure and awe of an audience watching a chained Houdini escape from an underwater chamber.
Publishers Weekly
After working as his assistant for more than 20 years, Sabine marries her beloved boss, Parcifal, knowing that he's gay and has just lost his lover. What she doesn't find out until after his death from AIDS is that Parcifal was actually Guy Fettera from Alliance, Neb., and had a family he never spoke about. Karen Ziemba creates an appropriately light tone for the narrator, despite some dark events that Sabine discovers when she visits Parcifal's sweet, dysfunctional family. She crafts clear, flat Midwest accents for the magician's mother and sisters and her pace and annunciation are excellent. Ziemba's men all sound alike, but they play minimal roles. She is an experienced and professional reader with just the right stuff for Patchett's 1997 novel, which probes the complex motives of Parcifal and his assistant. A Harcourt paperback (Reviews, July 14, 1997)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Richard Eder
Wonderful. . .Put together with considerable canniness. --Los Angeles Times Book Review
USA Today
Ann Patchett is an elegant and lyrical writer.
New York Times Book Review
When a gay Los Angeles magician named Parsifal dies suddenly, he leaves behind his heartbroken assistant, Sabine, and a secret past that leads her to Nebraska and a family she never knew he had. Last year our reviewer, Suzanne Berne, called the author "an adroit, graceful writer."- The New York Times Book Review, October 18, 1998
Kirkus Reviews
Having produced wonders in two earlier novels (The Patron Saint of Liars; Taft), 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 familyhad 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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156006217
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 9/28/2004
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 206,509
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.02 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Meet the Author

Ann Patchett

ANN PATCHETT is the author of six novels, including Bel Canto, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize. She has written for the Atlantic, Gourmet, the New York Times Magazine, Vogue, the Washington Post , and others.


Ann Patchett was born in Los Angeles but raised in Nashville, Tennessee. While at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, she studied with such notable authors as Russell Banks and Grace Paley before getting her first short works published. She labored long and hard in the trenches of Seventeen magazine (where her talents went largely unrecognized), before striking gold with her ambitious first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, which was named a New York Times Notable Book of 1992 and subsequently made into a major motion picture.

Since her auspicious debut, Patchett has crafted a handful of elegant novels, garnering several accolades and awards along the way. But her real breakthrough occurred with 2001's Bel Canto, a taut, psychological thriller set in the claustrophobic confines of an embassy under siege in South America. Winning both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize, Bel Canto catapulted Patchett into the ranks of bestselling authors.

As if to prove her versatility, Patchett departed from fiction for 2004's Truth & Beauty, the heartbreaking account of her longstanding, difficult friendship with the late Lucy Grealy, a gifted writer whose disfigurement from cancer precipitated a tragic descent into addiction and death. This memoir won several literary awards and appeared on many end-of-year best books lists.

Success breeds success; and with each book, Patchett's reputation grows. Perhaps the secret to her popularity has been captured best by Patchett's friend, Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler. "She is a genius of the human condition," he says. "I can't think of many other writers, ever, who get anywhere near her ability to comprehend the vastness and diversity of humanity, and to articulate our deepest heart."

Good To Know

In 1997, The Patron Saint of Liars was adapted into a TV movie, and Patchett also helped to write the screenplay for Taft, which was optioned by actor Morgan Freeman for a feature film.

Patchett knew absolutely nothing about opera before writing Bel Canto; she began her research with Fred Plotkin's book Opera 101.

In our interview, Patchett shared some fascinating facts about herself:

"I've never had a television."

"I brush my dog's teeth every morning."

"I got a pig for my ninth birthday and haven't eaten red meat since."

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    1. Hometown:
      Nashville, Tennessee
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 2, 1963
    2. Place of Birth:
      Los Angeles, California
    1. Education:
      B.A., Sarah Lawrence College, 1985; M.F.A., University of Iowa, 1987
    2. Website:

First Chapter


PARSIFAL IS DEAD. That is the end of the story.

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 that 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.

Sabine stood there, her back against the massive MRI machine, her arms wrapped around her chest, waiting. It was, in a way, the end of Sabine.

After a while the neuroradiologist came into the room and told her, in a manner that was respectful and direct, the one thing she already knew: Her husband was dead. He did not pluck at his lab coat or stare at the floor the way so many doctors had done when they had spoken to Parsifal and Sabine about Phan. He told her it had been an aneurism, a thinning in a blood vessel of his brain. He told her it had probably been there Parsifal's whole life and was not in any way related to his AIDS. Like a patient with advanced lymphoma who is driven off the freeway by a careless teenager changing lanes, the thing that had been scheduled to kill Parsifal had been denied, and Sabine lost the years she was promised he still had. The doctor did not say it was a blessing, but Sabine could almost see the word on his lips. Compared to the illness Parsifal had, this death had been so quick it was nearly kind. "Your husband," the doctor explained, "never suffered."

Sabine squeezed the silver dollar Parsifal had given her until she felt the metal edge cut painfully into her palm. Wasn't suffering exactly the thing she had been afraid of? That he would go like Phan, lingering in so many different kinds of pain, his body failing him in unimaginable ways--hadn't she hoped for something better for Parsifal? If he couldn't have held on to his life, then couldn't he at least have had some ease in his death? That was what had happened. Parsifal's death had been easy. Having come to find there was no comfort in getting what she wanted, what she wanted now was something else entirely. She wanted him back. Sick or well. She wanted him back.

"The headache this morning," the doctor told her, "would have been brought on by a leak." His beard was not well trimmed and his glasses were smudged, as if set in place by greasy fingers. He had the paleness of so many neuroradiologists.

Sabine said she'd like to see the film.

The doctor nodded and returned a minute later holding a large paper envelope stamped DO NOT BEND. She followed him into what looked to be a closet and he put eight large sheets of gray film on the lightboard. Each had fifteen separate pictures, Parsifal's brain sliced in every conceivable direction. In the dark, narrow room Sabine studied the information, her face painted in a bluish white light. She stared at the shape of Parsifal's head, at the deep, curving trenches of his brain. In some pictures things were recognizable, the strong line of his jaw, the sockets of his eyes. But most of the pictures were patterns, aerial views of an explosion taken at night. Again and again she saw the shadow, the dark, connected mass the size of a pinto bean. Even she could see where this was going.

The doctor tapped the obvious with the tip of his pencil. "There," he said. He faced the light when he spoke, and the pictures of Parsifal's brain reflected in his glasses. "In some people they stay that way forever. In others they just give out."

Sabine asked for a moment alone and the doctor nodded and backed out of the room. When these pictures were taken, just slightly over an hour before, Parsifal had been alive. She raised her hand to the film and traced her finger around the top line of his skull. The beautiful head she had held. The night Phan died, Sabine had thought the tragedy was knowing that Parsifal would die, too, that there was only a limited amount of time. But now Sabine knew the tragedy was living, that there would be years and years to be alone. She pulled down the films and put them back in the envelope, tucked the envelope under her arm, and tried to remember where the elevators were.

The empire that was Cedars Sinai hospital lapped up the last blocks of Los Angeles before it became Beverly Hills. Buildings were connected by overhead tunnels called skyways. Waiting rooms were categorized by the seriousness of the wait. The halls were lined with art that was too good for a hospital. Sometimes it seemed that every wealthy person in Los Angeles had died at Cedars Sinai, or their loved ones had died there, and what they had been left with was not bitterness or fear but a desire to have their name on a plaque over some door. The abundance of money took away as many outward signs of hospital life as possible. There were no sickly green walls, no peeling floors or disinfectant smells. There had been nights when Sabine had walked those halls so short on sleep that the place became a giant hotel, the Sahara or Desert Sands in Las Vegas, where she and Parsifal used to perform their magic act years before. But tonight, as Sabine went to the nurses' station to call the funeral home, it wasn't even late; the sky still had the smallest smear of orange over Beverly Hills. All the people who would one day come to Cedars to die were only beginning to think about going to sleep.

Sabine knew what had to be done. She had practice. Phan had been dead fourteen months and fourteen months was long enough to forget exactly nothing. But with Phan it had been different. He had worked towards his death so steadily that they knew its schedule. After the doctor came to the house for the last time and told them a day, maybe two, Phan had died the next morning. With Parsifal, it was only a headache.

"I had a dream about Phan," Parsifal had said that morning.

Sabine brought him coffee and sat down on the edge of his bed. It had been Phan's bed, Phan's house. Parsifal and Phan had lived together for five years. Since Phan's death, Parsifal had had a handful of dreams about Phan which he recounted faithfully to Sabine, like letters written by a lover in another country.

"How's Phan?"

Parsifal woke up quickly, clearheaded. He took the cup. "He was sitting by a pool. He was wearing one of my suits, my pearl gray suit and a white shirt. He had taken off his tie." He closed his eyes, searching for details. Phan was in the details. "He was holding this big pink drink, a mai-tai or something. It had fruit all over the glass. He looked so rested, absolutely beautiful."

"Was it our pool?"

"Oh no. This was a capital-P Pool--dolphin fountains, gold tiles."

Sabine nodded. She pictured it herself: blue skies, palm fronds. "Did he say anything?"

"He said, 'The water's just perfect. I'm thinking about going for a swim.'" Parsifal could mimic Phan's voice, perfect English sandwiched between layers of Vietnamese and French. The sound of Phan's voice made Sabine shiver.

Phan didn't swim. His house had a pool, but pools dominated the backyards of Southern California. Having one was not the same as wanting one. Sometimes Phan would roll up his pants and sit at the shallow end with his feet in the water.

"What do you think it all means?" Parsifal asked.

Sabine ran her hand over the top of his head, bald now from who knew what combination of things. She put no stock in dreams. To her they were just a television left on in another room. "I think it means he's happy."

"Yes," he said, and smiled at her. "That's what I think."

There was a time not so long ago that Parsifal never would have told his dreams to Sabine, unless it was a ridiculous dream, like the time he told her he dreamed about going into the living room and finding Rabbit in the wingback chair, two hundred pounds and six feet tall, reading the newspaper through half-glasses. And maybe he hadn't had that dream, maybe he only said it to be funny. But Phan's death had made him sentimental, hopeful. He wanted to believe in a dream that told him death had been good to Phan, that he was not lost but in a place where Parsifal could find him later. A place with a pool and a bar.

"What about you?" Parsifal said, covering her hand with his hand. "Any dreams?"

But Sabine never remembered her dreams, or maybe she didn't have them. She shook her head and asked how he was feeling. He said fine, but there was a little bit of a headache coming on. That had been eight o'clock in the morning. That had been on this same day.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Sabine never had the kind of passionate love with Parsifal that her mother has with her father and that Bertie has with Haas. Is it possible to be happy in a marriage without it? Was Sabine genuinely happy with Parsifal? Dot tells Sabine she has never experienced this kind of passion either. Do you think finding your true love is destiny or luck?

2. The settings of this novel play an important role in defining the characters. Los Angeles is a city where "there are no laws against pre-tending to be something you weren't." Considering that he was born in a conservative Midwestern town and that he killed his father there, was the illusion Parsifal created about his past understandable or was he selfish? If Parsifal had been born and raised in New York City or Chicago, would his illusion have been necessary?

3. Sabine's dreams help her journey through her grief. She believes that "sometimes it was possible for someone to come back." Do you think Phan and Parsifal are really coming back from the "beyond" in her dreams? Why is it Phan and not Parsifal whom she dreams about first? Why do you think Sabine was able to have such a good relationship with her husband's lover when he was alive?

4. On the plane to Nebraska, Sabine looks out of the window and reflects that "it looked like a world she would build herself, the order and neatness of miniature." What is she revealing about herself? Are the miniature buildings she creates saying something important about her personality or is that just her job? When her airplane is struck by violent turbulence, she thinks dying then wouldn't be so terrible. Do you think Sabine really wants to die?

5. The first magic trickthat Sabine performs in Nebraska is when she pulls an egg out from behind Dots ear. What is significant about her doing this trick at this very moment? Gradually, Sabine performs more and more magic tricks. What is happening to her emotionally that the magic reveals? Is she discovering something about her own ability or is she simply carrying on for Parsifal?

6. Watching the Johnny Carson video is like a religion for Dot's family. Why is it so important to them? Sabine watches it with them twice. While watching it the first time what does she realize about their magic act and her role as the magician's assistant? How is her reaction different the second time she watches it, and why?

7. Sabine finally dreams about Parsifal. But at first she thinks that he is Kitty. Was this just a mistake because they look so much alike or is it more meaningful? Do you think that Sabine and Kitty are really gay? Do you think they would have fallen in love had each of them not loved Parsifal? Kitty says that she dreams of Parsifal and Phan too. Are we supposed to think that Parsifal has somehow brought them together?

8. A big part of a magician's trick is the skillful manipulation of the audience. Is Sabine manipulating the Fetters? When she performs the card trick that enrages Howard, do you think it was an honest mistake? Do you think Kitty leaves him simply because he hurts Bertie? Do you think that if Howard had been a better husband and father Kitty and Sabine would have fallen in love?

9. At Bertie's wedding, Sabine does Parsifal's card trick from her dream. Is there a secret to this trick or is it really "magic"? She tells her assistant at the wedding that she doesn't know how she pulled it off. Is Sabine telling the truth? In her dream Parsifal's card trick causes great excitement, but at the wedding the guests are more impressed by how she shuffles the cards. Why doesn't this disappoint Sabine?

10. The Magician's Assistant begins, "Parsifal is dead. That is the end of the story." Is Parsifal s death really the end of the story? In her last dream, Sabine waves goodbye to him. Do you think she will dream about Parsifal again? Do you think Kitty will finally leave Al and go to Los Angeles with Sabine?

Copyright © 1998. Published in the U.S. by Harcourt, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 80 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 80 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 13, 2012

    NOOK Book version is FILLED with typographical errors!

    The Nook version of this title was absolutely FILLED with typos. It was absolutely ridiculous. Some of the typos were humorous (eg, "feces" instead of "faces"), but some were so egregious that I absolutely couldn't figure out what the word was supposed to be. I don't know if the print versions of this title are the same, but just beware if you purchase the Nook version. It's completely distracting.

    33 out of 35 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2011

    Editorial nightmare

    I am enjoying the story; however, I cannot believe the plethora of spelling and editorial mistakes in the ebook edition. It is a real shame that it is so easy nowadays to let things slide.

    22 out of 23 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2012

    Distracting typos

    Typos distract the reader. Barnes and Noble should correct this or give a refund.

    19 out of 20 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2012

    Great story! Tons of typos in the Nook version. It's distracting

    Great story! Tons of typos in the Nook version. It's distracting.

    12 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 8, 2013

    Hey, B and N!! I haven't read this....and it does look good, but

    Hey, B and N!! I haven't read this....and it does look good, but probably won't because of the typos. I'm a retired English writing teacher who also has edited friends' books. If you'd like me to edit Nook books for you, I'd be delighted to do that! Please let me know.

    6 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2012

    entertaining but could have been better

    I enjoyed this book but thought it could have explored a lot more in order to make it a deeper, richer read.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 30, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    interesting story . . but

    I know Ms Patchett is a favorite of many, however I feel she just takes too long to get to the point.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 10, 2011

    Love this author ... but ...

    Great story. What I would expect from this terrific author. The ending left me scratching my head ... there was build-up to something thrilling ... but the end was flat and dissapointing.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 17, 2011

    Well Written

    When I first began reading this book, I felt like I was reading poetry. The writing is very lyrical. The characters are unsettling in how they present themselves. You almost want to say to Sabine, get out of your "funk" and move on. I suppose that is what Parcifal's mother does by inviting Sabine to visit in Nebraska. Sabine finds out that Parcifal is really Guy and had a very different life from what he told her. Lots of lies but somehow you still like Parsifal. He was a victim of his environment and family. However, he still loved his family. The sisters are interesting. Parsifal/Guy's mother really is the stabilizer in the family. Sabine learns about herself and her relationship with Parsifal. The family brings her back to reality. The ending is somewhat abrupt but you feel that something good will come to help this family. Good book for a book club. Lots of interesting things to discuss and think about.

    Thought it was interesting that Johnnie Carson is mentioned in the book and that he had also been a magician and from Nebraska.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 8, 1999

    A wonderful book

    This is teh story of a womans search for information about her dead husbands is captivating and deep, without being depressing. It questions concepts about life, love, and how well you can really know someone. An excellent book!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2013

    Good story but..

    Not her best. B and N does hugh diservice (sp)
    To their customers by bad e book pagenation and editing.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 14, 2013

    I love Ann Patchett, especially after reading State of Wonder. M

    I love Ann Patchett, especially after reading State of Wonder. My hopes were obviously way too high, the ending was just blah. I felt bad for Sabine actually, the only good parts in the book, was when she was dreaming. Also the nook version did have many typos.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2013

    Just as surprising as a good card trick!

    The Magician's Assistant is a story of deep love, faith in one's path, and the mystical surprise in the commonest of places. This story of Sabine, and her loss of Parsifal the Magician, even with their non-traditional relationship, brings back every moment that I've ever tried to fold myself into a box so that the star can slice a sword through me. Through Sabine's eyes, I now see the perfect illusion that I've helped create, and it is perfectly OK to let the spotlight shine on those we love. The path Sabine chose in her grief allowed many others to display their gifts and begin to believe in magic after all.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 3, 2010

    Well written

    Great story with great detail.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2013


    A lovely story that I greatly enjoyed but you lose one point for all the typos. Did enjoy the 20 foot feces. That was funny.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2012


    A great read. Didn't want to put down my nook and was sad when I finished it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 29, 2004

    Stayed up all night!

    I stayed up all night reading this book. It is one of the better books I've read in quite a while. Mr. Eugenides's characters became very real to me. I particularly enjoyed Sabine's relationship with Phan, as she came to understand him after death.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2000


    I adore this book! It is a wonderful story of a woman who defined herself by someone else and now needs to find her own idenitiy. The reader gets to follow her through her adventures as she struggles to find something to hold onto. It's one to read over and over and over....

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 4, 2013

    Fascinating story

    I found this a hard book to get started, but once into the story it was a great read, even if a bit far-fetched.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 3, 2013

    Boring but I kept reading hoping it would pay off in the end. It

    Boring but I kept reading hoping it would pay off in the end. It did not. I was disappointed I wasted my time.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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