The Magician’s Assistant
by Ann Patchett
From Goodreads: Sabine– twenty years a magician’s assistant to her handsome, charming husband– is suddenly a widow. In the wake of his death, she finds he has left a final trick; a false identity and a family allegedly lost in a tragic accident but now revealed as very much alive and well. Named as heirs in his will, they enter Sabine’s life and set her on an adventure of unraveling his secrets, from sunny Los Angeles to the windswept plains of Nebraska, that will work its own sort of magic on her.
I say this because the media likes to forget that there is a place called the Great Plains that makes up a significant portion of the continental United States. States like Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota are called ‘flyover states’, because all most people do is fly over them while traveling from one coast to the other. It seems like the only time we get attention is when a major media outlet misidentifies states, or otherwise wants to reiterate to their readers Back East or Out West that people in the middle of the country are all conservatives who maybe aren’t all that bright.
So I’m always a bit excited and a bit leery when I find a book set in Nebraska. At first I think, “Wow! This author has heard of Nebraska!” and then I wonder if they’re going to be writing a caricature of a person- the corn-fed yokel in overalls chewing on a piece of tallgrass and declaring that the tornado sounded just like a freight train (that fact that a tornado does actually sound like a freight train is irrelevant).
I was prepared for anything when I started reading The Magician’s Assistant. I’d only read one other book by Ann Patchett- Bel Canto, which I enjoyed- but I felt like I could trust that Patchett wouldn’t reduce the Nebraskan characters to flat impersonations of people. I was relieved to find that she had not, though I had to refrain from rolling my eyes at the main character’s– Sabine’s– first impressions of Dot and Bertie (her dead husband’s mother and sister) when they came to Los Angeles. I had to remember that it was Sabine looking at them and that, in spite of her many world travelers, Sabine knew nothing of the empty parts of the map or the people who lived there.
Once a minor medical emergency opens Sabine’s eyes as to Dot’s deeper nature, that her mother-in-law isn’t just some dumb hick overawed by the bright lights of Los Angeles, things started to click for me. Dot had facets of her personality that I knew from my own mother and grandmother and friends’ mothers: practical, sensible, and not afraid of dealing with a little blood. I think it was Dot’s sensibility that helped shake Sabine out of her daze and lit the spark of curiosity that sent her to Alliance, Nebraska despite her parents’ misgivings.
Dot and Bertie weren’t the only things I found familiar. Patchett describes the landscape of a Nebraska winter like she’s spent a few here, dealing with the wind and the bitter cold. The blizzard Dot drives through to bring Sabine home from the little airport in Scottsbluff was just as blinding and disorienting as the ones I’ve driven through. Even Dot’s house felt familiar, growing cozy at times when the family was happy together and claustrophobic when they were quarreling. Though I’ve never been to Alliance, Patchett’s version of small-town Nebraska feels like the one I grew up in, complete with complex characters, some of whom are perfectly happy to be where they are, and others who yearn to be somewhere else.
The Magician’s Assistant is a lovingly-drawn picture of a flawed family that doesn’t lean on stereotypes. The Nebraskan contingency wasn’t mocked for not being cultured cosmopolitan, and Sabine was open-minded enough to let herself see that even Midwesterners can be as complicated and accepting as her now-dead family from Los Angeles.
As in Bel Canto, Patchett’s prose is beautiful and flowing, but not so showy that it draws attention to itself. The beginning can feel a bit slow, but I think that’s deliberate. Sabine is drowning in grief and an inability to figure out what she intends to do with her life now that her husband is gone. She’s just treading water, as it were, and not moving forward. It takes the appearance of Dot and Bertie to start to shake her out of her daze, and that’s where the pacing picks up and flows like a steady river to a satisfying conclusion.