The Magician's Assistant

The Magician's Assistant

by Ann Patchett


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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). "

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156006217
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 09/28/2004
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 118,173
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.95(d)

About the Author

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.


Nashville, Tennessee

Date of Birth:

December 2, 1963

Place of Birth:

Los Angeles, California


B.A., Sarah Lawrence College, 1985; M.F.A., University of Iowa, 1987

Read an Excerpt


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.

What People are Saying About This

Robert Olen Butler

Reading this is like watching a master illusionist at work. Ann Patchett fills her reader with wonder, delight, and a new sense of possibility. And with this work, Patchett's career dazzles in much the same way: anything is possible for her.

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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The Magician's Assistant 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 118 reviews.
ChristyB-V More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Typos distract the reader. Barnes and Noble should correct this or give a refund.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great story! Tons of typos in the Nook version. It's distracting.
english_teacher_39yrs More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not her best. B and N does hugh diservice (sp) To their customers by bad e book pagenation and editing.
GrandmaLee More than 1 year ago
I know Ms Patchett is a favorite of many, however I feel she just takes too long to get to the point.
Patty Ableman More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book but thought it could have explored a lot more in order to make it a deeper, richer read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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!
ksei More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great story with great detail.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great read. Didn't want to put down my nook and was sad when I finished it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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....
22soccermom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ann Patchett has an amazing way of making a totally implausible plot, believable. Beautiful woman falls in love with a gay magician, marries the gay magician in order for him to have an heir after he dies from AIDS (contracted from his lover who has already passed away). Then she meets and goes gto Nebraska to visit his long estranged family. The only thing I didn't like was the fact that the story just ended. It just stopped. No conclusion. Very unsatisfying. But I love the way that Patchett puts her words together.
lycomayflower on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The novel begins shortly after the death of Sabine's husband, Parsifal. He was gay, and his lover, Phan, has also died recently. Parsifal married Sabine so she could inherit from him with less fuss; Sabine probably married Parsifal because she once loved him, and, in the later years of their relationship, considered him her best friend. Parsifal was a magician and Sabine his assistant. When Parsifal's will reveals that he has a mother and two sisters living in Nebraska, about whom he never told Sabine, she begins to discover things about Parisal's past that both clarify and confuse her understanding of who he was.Patchett's writing is wonderful, and she puts her characters and settings (Los Angles and Alliance, Nebraska) on the page with such simple clarity and seemingly effortless attention to detail that you never once question the reality of them. Magic tricks and the world of magicians weave through the story, adding interest and some thematic heft. The secrets in Parsifal's past always work to reveal more about the novel's characters, never exist for drama or shock value. An engaging and compelling read, though one which ends perhaps a bit abruptly, without a fully satisfying resolution to all of the story threads.
PermaSwooned on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I heard a review on NPR of Ann Patchett's latest book, and decided to check her out. The description of this book seemed to be a slightly simpler storyline, so decided to check it out. Her characters are fascinating. The heroine, Sabine, seems to be a person unable to fully embody a life of her own. She lived with and worked for years with the love of her life, a gay magician. She took care of him and his lover as both were dying of AIDS, and married him late in his life to make all his legal and medical issues easier to handle. In the book, she discovers that he actually had a family he had never mentioned living mundane lives in the Midwest. Quirky story, but enjoyably told.
cherylscountry on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved this book and the writing is great. Wasn't sure at first about wanting to read a book with the title The Magician's Assitance especially if the main story was about magic However I soon discovered this story was so original and unique I couidnt put it down Every page had a new trick to entertain me. I highly recommend this book for several reasons including a odd but exciting story lines, unique and interesting characters, assortment of types of love and the sad truth of living with domestic violence.
mrstreme on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
For most of Sabine's adult life, she was in love with her employer and best friend, Parsifal. They travelled together as a magic act and later as antiques experts. They shared an uncommon bond of friendship. Sabine knew her love would always be unrequited. Why? Because Parsifal was gay - and his true love was a man named Phan.Sadly, both Phan and Parsifal had AIDS, and as Sabine prepared to say good-bye to them both, Parsifal does something remarkable: he married Sabine, ensuring her financial freedom for the rest of her life. Parsifal, however, had secrets too, namely a mom and two sisters in Nebraska who had not seen him in more than 20 years. When they learned about his death, Parsifal's mom and sister came to Los Angeles to meet Sabine. Once united, Sabine and Parsifal's family pieced together his mysterious life.The Magician's Assistant was a tale like none other. Indeed, a woman married to a gay man near the end of his life was an unusual story development.  However, Ann Patchett had more tricks up her sleeve.  Incredibly loving and flawed, Parsifal's family showed Sabine what life was like for young Parsifal (then called Guy), uncovering more secrets. Together, they mourn his death and help heal old wounds.Wonderfully told, The Magician's Assistant was a moving story of love, friendship, family ties and estranged relationships. Each of the story's twists and turns were unpredictable, and while Patchett left the ending open-ended, I was pleased with the strength of friendship among this group of women. Their mutual love for Parsifal brought them together, but their love for each other made them even closer. The Magician's Assistant was a beautiful book, and once again, Patchett swept me away with her magical storytelling.
hemlokgang on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Audiobook.......I thoroughly enjoyed this Ann Patchett novel. In fact, it may be my favorite of hers so far. The story works on multiple levels as does a good magic show, and the theme of the sleight of hand we all employ in our presentation to others is deftly woven throughout the story. The characters, including the magician's assistant herself, discover untold truths and debunk family myths and in the end develop new strengths because of both experiences. The hand is quicker than the eye in more ways than one!
bkwurm on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'm a very big fan of Ann Patchett; her book "Bel Canto" may be one of my favorite pieces of contemporary fiction. "The Magician's Assistant" may not have been quite as good as "Bel Canto", but it was still a delightful read. One of the best parts of Patchett's writing is that her characters are always fully developed, and she is able to place you inside the mind of each character with no more than a few words. It was no different with Sabine, the main character of "The Magician's Assistant." The story itself is far more leisurely than Patchett's other novels. It is the story of a lost love; of grief, remembrance, and a slow discovery. That said, I was not once tempted to set the book aside for another one. Only the end left me slightly disappointed--a few ends were left hanging loose, and not knowing drives me crazy. ;-)