My greatest aspiration as an author is to carry readers inside the social turmoil of our times and thereby dissolve the bitter cultural divisions that plague the nation. Ann Patchett is therefore one of my favorite authors, for she explores the bonds that join us. Bel Canto is her most famous example, but The Magician’s Assistant, an earlier novel (but one I just read), is a much needed, timely reminder of the power of such bonds to triumph over bitterness. She confronts both issues of sexual orientation as well as urban/rural cultural splits as she brings widely disparate characters together, exploring bonds much deeper and more invisible than such conflicts.
Parcifal the magician has died of AIDS, following the death of his great love, Phan. Sabine, Parcifal’s assistant, has been married to her boss for twenty years, knowing he was gay, and is devastated by the loss of both. This initial love trio creates a convincing picture of the many kinds of love that bind us.
When, after his death, the family Parcifal has told her was dead contacts her, Sabine, deep in grief, responds out of the need to keep him with her and a compulsion to fill in her boss’s curiously empty past. Thus a Jewish girl from Los Angeles departs for a tiny town in Nebraska. One reviewer has remarked on Patchett’s gift for combining the fantastic with the ordinary, which she certainly does as Sabine, from the world of magicians, enters the Fetter household.
Parsifal’s mother and sisters have watched his career on television, thus keeping Parcifal alive, though he’d cut all bonds with them thirty years previously. The trauma that split the family emerges as gradually as Sabine’s immersion into a world totally different from her urban Jewish origins. The cultural differences between the badly broken family and the Sabine dissolve, though I could not point to any event that brings this about. It’s magic. Sabine, who repeatedly claims she was only the assistant of the charismatic, brilliant, Parcifal, is rarely if ever the primary actor in events, yet her presence facilitates the growth and regrowth of bonds. Patchett is the magician.
The story is an ode to the regenerative powers of human love, love of all kinds, and its power to cut through social and cultural differences. As an author, I’ve often focused on the complexities of the human heart as a way of transforming our view of the issues that divide us, and Ann Patchett’s stories are great illustrations of that power.