Book Review: The Magician’s Assistant

magicianThe 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.

Book Review: What Now?

whatnowHaving recently discovered Ann Patchett’s wonderful novels, I was pleasantly surprised to learn she had also written a stirring essay based on her commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College.

Less than one hundred pages in length, What Now? can easily be read in one sitting. Using anecdotes from her own life, Patchett offers many simple truths and life lessons that will inspire anyone at a crossroads, not just newly-minted graduates.

As a recent retiree, I recall facing the What Now? question many times during the year before and after my official retirement. I could easily identify with the relief that Patchett experienced when she finally received a college acceptance letter. And I agree that having an answer to that annoying question was even more meaningful than the actual acceptance itself.

I was amused by the incident that led to an unexpected encounter and friendship with Alice Ilchman, the president of Sarah Lawrence College. And Patchett’s comment: “Sometimes circumstances at hand force us to be braver than we actually are, and so we knock on doors and ask for assistance. Sometimes not having any idea where we are going works out better than we could possibly have imagined.”

While Patchett appreciated the education she received from Sarah Lawrence and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she was also grateful to the nuns who taught her throughout her elementary and secondary years. So many wonderful descriptions: “Receiving an education is a little like a garden snake swallowing a chicken egg: it’s in you but takes awhile to digest”; “I learned modesty, humility and how to make a decent white sauce”; “In a world that is flooded with children’s leadership camps and grown-up leadership seminars and bestselling books on leadership, I count myself as fortunate to have been taught a thing or two about following.”

The road to best-selling author is never a linear one. In Ann Patchett’s case, she “batted around like a shuttlecock after graduation” and when she ran out of money, took a job as a line cook. Getting fired, graduate school and more detours until she realized that “What Now is always going to be a work in progress.”

 

Book Review: State of Wonder

stateofwonderBad news arrives by way of Aerogram. Anders Eckham has died of a fever in a remote part of Brazil.

His colleague, Dr. Marina Singh, who does unremarkable research on cholesterol at Vogel, a large pharmaceutical firm based in Minnesota, experiences “a very modest physical collapse” when she hears the news from her unremarkable lover, Mr. Fox, the company CEO.

As these two emotionally crippled characters struggle with the news, they realize that Anders’ wife, Karen must be told. After delivering the news haphazardly, Mr. Fox concludes that Anders bungled his mission and decides to send Marina to investigate the situation in Brazil.

Dr. Annick Swenson, a former medical school professor who stopped Marina’s medical career in its tracks, is supposedly creating a fertility drug that will allow women to bear children well into old age. Excited by the prospect of this wonder drug, Vogel funded the research and gave the formidable Dr. Swenson considerable latitude. Unfortunately, the septuagenarian considers herself beyond reproach and does not feel accountable to Vogel.

The story follows Marian as she travels from the plains of Minnesota to the heart of the Amazonian rainforest. Along the way, she loses her luggage, not once but twice. Forced to dress like the natives, her skin darkens and she is even mistaken for a member of the Lakashi tribe.

While working with Dr. Swenson, Marina faces her demons. We learn of the foreign graduate-student father who abandoned his family long before “that had become the stuff of presidential history” and Marina’s dealings with “all those translucent cousins who looked at her like she was a llama who had wandered into their holiday dinner.” We hear and see her severe reaction to the anti-malarial medication she had to take while visiting India and, now Brazil. And we learn of the tragic mistake that derailed Marina’s surgical career.

Set deep in the Amazon jungle, State of Wonder is primarily an adventure tale, replete with poison arrows, snakes and cannibals. While reading I could easily visualize the ravenous mosquitoes and floating snake heads and feel the oppressive heat and powerful storms. But Ann Patchett goes beyond the adventure, skillfully weaving some of the most important social issues of our time into this provocative and ambitious novel.