Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett

Title: The Magician's Assistant
Author: Ann Patchett

Genre: Fiction (Magicians / Nebraska / Homosexuality / AIDS / Family Secrets / Marriage / Abuse)
Publisher/Publication Date: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (10/1/1997)
Source: My public library.

Rating: Meh -- okay.
Did I finish?: I did, with considerable effort.
One-sentence summary: A new widow traces her husband's mysterious past and learns more about love, family, and belonging.

Do I like the cover?: I do, but rather meanly: the pretty, vapid, abbreviated head is obviously Sabine, who is pretty, vapid, and abbreviated; the cute rabbit was my favorite character.

I'm reminded of...: Ann Patchett (is that unfair to say?)

First line: Parsifal is dead.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow, but then again, I'm biased.

Why did I get this book?: Favorite blogger Nomadreader mentioned she wanted to read more Patchett and kindly agreed to do a joint read with me. You can read her take here.

Review: This is my second Patchett novel, and I liked it even less than the previous one I read (State of Wonder).

First, I totally misunderstood the premise of this novel. I thought our heroine Sabine's lovely hottie magician husband dies, and then she discovers he was secretly gay, and then discovers he lied about his family being dead and seeks them out blah blah. Instead, the story is that Sabine's lovely hottie magician husband is openly gay and only marries her in the last year so she may inherit his things. He's had numerous loves despite her affection for him. When he dies, she discovers his family isn't dead and seeks them out blah blah. Slight difference, but a significant one: it put the idea of knowing more on Sabine. She knew who Parsifal was, to a point -- she'd been his assistant for 20 years -- so I found her behavior in this book to be a bit piteous and aggravating.

Disappointingly, rather than explore the source of her mental and emotional stasis, Patchett has Sabine pursue Parsifal's life -- yet another obsessive step into the life of a man who didn't love her like she loved him. Since I wasn't fixated on Parsifal the way Sabine was, this whole journey didn't capture me. That Sabine seemed to have little emotional growth and development along the way -- other than to glom onto one of Parsifal's relatives -- frustrated me, but I'm not sure that was the intent of Patchett's story. I think we were supposed to like and relate to Sabine but I found her in need of therapy and some time alone to think about who she is and what she wants from her life.

My next complaint is a little harder to articulate, but there was something dated, I guess, about the novel's feel regarding gays. In some ways, that makes sense -- this book came out in 1997, nearly twenty years ago -- but at the same time, I feel like there's an artificial sense of shock and surprise created by Patchett to evoke tension, maybe. I'll have to meditate on this more as I know I'm not expressing myself clearly -- while reading this, I found myself venting to my wife about how all the Midwestern gays I know (even the ones not speaking to their families) had a more layered relationship to their kin than Patchett's imagining.

And on to my final complaint about this book: I wasn't wild about Patchett's use of setting. In State of Wonder, I thought she evoked the Amazon beautifully, magically. In this book, I found her articulation of Nebraska and the Midwest to be little more than caricature. I suppose since I've lived in Nebraska and the Midwest for a good chunk of my life (and not the Amazon), I cared more, but I felt Patchett used stereotypical shorthand to paint the setting -- country kitsch decor, Walmart, brutish spouses -- rather than really evoke the beauty of a place that moves, lives, and breathes differently than L.A.

The writing is very Patchett-ian, I would say. I read a review about this book describing it's "...dreams, flashbacks, and long, elliptical conversations..." which is spot on, and made me insane. I'm not wild about dream sequences in books; I find them a bit self-indulgent and pointless. Perhaps if I liked Sabine more, that element would have resonated, but since I didn't, I felt tired -- I kept putting this one down rather than wallow in the linguistic snakiness.

So, in conclusion, I'm a big cranky wench. Millions of others have enjoyed this novel so I'm sure it's mostly just me.

19 comments:

  1. The only Patchett book I have read is Bel Canto and I loved it. After reading your review I do not think I would read this one, I just don't think I would enjoy it. Thanks for the honest review!

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    1. Hands down, Bel Canto seems to be the favorite -- clearly, I must get it!

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  2. I read both reviews, and would have to agree that this one is not for me. Sabine reads as flat and uninteresting, even in the reviews, and the fact that she is pining away for a man she can never have really makes me sad, rather than sympathetic to her plight. I am sorry that you didn't like this one, but I can understand why. And why is it that being gay was such a huge and horrible issue? I have complaints with that.

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    1. I hate being a misogynist when I read but Sabine is the kind of heroine that just makes me so hateful -- I want to shake her so bad. In State of Wonder, I felt that way about Marina, but as I liked the story and Marina a little more, I was willing to accept her -- but it feels like Patchett has a thing for heroines with poor decision-making skills.

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    2. I know many people didn't like Marina in State of Wonder, but I did. She did make some poor decisions, but they felt in tune with her character and her life priorities, and most importantly, they were age appropriate. Sabine just baffles me.

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  3. I read State of Wonder and it was okay for me - it's saving grace was the way she wrote her setting. If that's not done well in this book, it's probably not for me.

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    1. Her descriptions are stunning and I do appreciate why people love her so -- but this one just didn't work for me. :/

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  4. Lol, it's not just you, I am sure there are a lot of other cranky readers out there

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  5. I read this when it was first published and really liked it... still consider it to be one of Patchett's best (along with State of Wonder). Interesting to think of it as dated, but societal attitudes have surely changed since the mid-90's. I also like to think I am a more sophisticated reader than I was back then. Should probably reread if I'm going to keep touting it as one of her finest ;-)

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    1. I would love to see what you think if you do end up rereading this one! The dated feel I can forgive, obviously -- she can't control that -- but it felt a little too sensationalized, even for the '90s. Certainly, her skill is there -- similar to what I saw in State of Wonder -- but I definitely think SoW was a more nuanced book (despite what *I* think was a v clunky end!) than this one.

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  6. I was on a Ann Patchett period some years ago, mostly because I loved Bel Canto and The Patron Saint of Liars, and remember that I read this one... everything else about it completely vanished from my mind. Noting remains except, as you very well put it, "meh".

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    1. Bel Canto and Patron Saint of Liars both have been rec'd non-stop -- so they're going on the TBR. I'll see if I can talk Nomadreader into another read with me -- I'm thinking Bel Canto since I have opera singer friends and I love to read opera-y things and pick their brain about them. Have you read State of Wonder?

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  7. I've only read one book of Patchett's and didn't like it much....this one is on my shelf from a library sale, and now I'm even more wary of it, though maybe with an accurate background...I may like it more than you. Still, I don't have plans to read it in the near future.

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    1. If you do ever get around to this one, I'd love to know what you think. I suppose for a prolific author like Patchett, a misstep now and then is allowed! ;)

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  8. It was so much fun to read with you, even though the book didn't wow either one of us! I loved Bel Canto, although not as much as Run and State of Wonder (and it seems I'm the only one who adored Run!) I still have Taft and The Patron Saint of Liars to read, plus her non-fiction book. I'm most excited about Patron Saint, as no one seems to talk about Taft ever (although perhaps it's a hidden gem?) Regardless, thanks for reading Patchett with me!

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  9. I have not had luck with Patchett. We do not jive well.

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  10. I think I might have grabbed this book at a library sale awhile back, but between your review and nomad reader's I'm in no hurry to read it. I did enjoy Run for the most part, so I want to read something else by Patchett at some point.

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  11. Sometimes I'm disappointed when I go back and read back listed books because they do seem dated. That's interesting, too, what you said about the author not getting the reaction to the gay character right. I wonder if it would have been different if she wrote it today. (My first thought when you mentioned the year was 1997 was almost 20 years ago, what?!?! LOL)

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