This is my first book in the 2nds Challenge. I have previously read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, and I really liked it. I actually selected this book because I liked the cover in the bookstore. I didn't really know anything about it. I have done this before to some success.
The story is essentially the personal journey of Sabine Parsifal, the assistant of the title, after the death of her husband, the magician of the title. It is actually more complicated than that because Parsifal, the magician, was gay and dies after his Vietnamese lover, who we assume dies of AIDS. Sabine is Parsifal's life-long friend and marries him at the end of his life.
Strengths of The Magician's Assistant: Patchett has written a quietly powerful book about grief and its impact on a variety of people. Sabine is a well-conceived and executed character. The first sentence of the book: "Parsifal is dead" puts her character squarely in the middle of all the action. We see her life with Parsifal in a series of dreams and conversations with others. Sabine's quest to resolve her grief and become more than "just" the assistant take her to Parsifal's long-lost and dysfunctional family in Nebraska where she learns much more about her husband than she ever knew. What I particularly liked were the "dream" sequences where Sabine was able to connect with Phan, Parsifal's dead lover, and, finally, Parsifal himself. Patchett infused a spiritual, and redemptive, aspects to these dreams which truly seemed to heal Sabine during the story. I was also interested in some of the insights into how magic is done. I wonder if I'll be able to see anything the next time I go to a magic show.
Weaknesses of The Magician's Assistant: I really like the book but it was very different from Bel Canto. I think readers who liked Bel Canto may find this one a bit too slow and contemplative. I also wondered why Patchett introduced a possible new love interest for Sabine. I liked the idea that she was coming into herself and did not need anyone else at this point in her life. It was a bit of a cop out by Patchett. I also think some people will be upset that the book ends in Nebraska, and that we don't see Sabine back in California living her own life. I liked the symbolism of ending the story with one final magic trick. For me, that solidified Sabine's spiritual recovery, and connection with Parsifal. I found it, oddly, quite romantic and touching.
Overall, I'd recommend this book if someone is in the mood for a more contemplative, quiet read. It is not a page-turner in the traditional sense, but is a book I think will be with me for a long time. If you've read it, I'd love to know what you thought.