The novel opens with two short definitive statements. “Parsifal is dead. That is the end of the story.” Unique but not unexpected from best-selling author Ann Patchett.
In The Magician’s Assistant, Parsifal turns out to be a gay magician, successful rug merchant and AIDS sufferer who has just died of a ruptured aneurysm while holding hands with Sabine, his assistant and wife of less than a year. Shock intermingles with grief as Sabine discovers the rude surprise delivered posthumously in Parsifal’s will: His mother and two sisters whom he always spoke of as dead are alive and well in Nebraska.
Lonely and paralyzed with grief, Sabine becomes involved with the Fetters women. She leave sunny California and ventures out to the bleak, wintry plains of the Midwest. There, she peels back the layers of her late husband’s life and starts her own healing process. At night, she is visited in her dreams by Phan, Parsifal’s Vietnamese lover, who provides guidance and reports on the afterlife.
As the members of Parsifal’s family seek her help, she realizes that she is no longer just an assistant. Using her new-found strength and confidence, she is able to work her own brand of magic and unchain her husband’s family from a painful past. Dot, Parsifal’s mother, often comments on her ability: “I don’t mean to compare, but you’re a lot better at this magic stuff than he ever was…you’ve got something extra.”
Published over fifteen years ago, The Magician’s Assistant addresses several social issues, among them homosexuality and abuse, that are still relevant today.