The Short Version: Sabine’s husband, Parsifal, has just died. He was a magician, she was his assistant – he was also gay, but they still had an incredible and supportive married relationship in L.A. After his death, she discovers in his will that he lied about his family being dead and they’re living in Nebraska. After Parsifal’s (or Guy’s, as was his real name) mother and sister come to visit L.A., Sabine goes to visit them in Nebraska. Discovery and moving-on ensues.
Review: Though this book is nowhere near as beautiful as Bel Canto, my first experience with Ms. Patchett’s writing, it still has the same feeling that my uncle described as “sitting beside a stream in a forest.” There is something incredibly calm about the way she writes – even scenes of high emotional and even physical intensity (the terrorists crashing the dinner party in Bel Canto, the moment with Howard and the knife or the scenes of magic in this book) are written with such a grace and flow that they feel much like a beautiful ballet. There is such fluidity that even the most surprising turns of events (and there are a few) feel natural (albeit surprising… if that makes sense). The delicacy with which Patchett handles the relationship between Sabine and Kitty – which, I’ll admit, I saw coming from a mile away – was also just simply beautiful.
Patchett has some fun with the concept of magic in the book, which is maybe my favorite thing about it. The trick with the aces is, indeed, inexplicable and inherently magical. However, she doesn’t even reveal any of the inner workings of a trick – even when Sabine explains tricks, the reader is never privy to that piece of information that turns it into giving away the workings of the entire illusion. In this, Patchett simultaneously draws attention to and honors the magician’s code to never reveal one’s secrets. Yeah, it gets made fun of on Arrested Development but it’s also the real deal. Anyway, some of the best ‘magic’ comes from Sabine’s dreams – where she meets with Phan, Parsifal’s lover who died of AIDS, and they have conversations and do things and meet with Parsifal and it is all so clearly real (in that way that dreams are always SO REAL! until you’ve awoken and forgotten about them) even though it is also inherently impossible. …or is it?
The most magical moment came (for me, anyway) not in any of the dreams or anything. It came when Sabine watches the Johnny Carson taping that she and Parsifal did. The Fetters (Guy’s real family) have a strange and not-a-little creepy ritual of watching the tape just about every night and when Sabine watches it, she not only watches it but she flashes back to it. However, instead of it seeming like a flashback, Patchett writes it so that the two things are intertwined, happening simultaneously without ever feeling separate. Sabine is watching is doing is watching is feeling is doing is watching is feeling is doing is doing is watching and it all flows together in this breath-taking sequence. It was literary magic.
The book does have one big detraction though – there wasn’t, to be honest, much of a plot. These were all wonderful characters and I loved meeting/getting to know all of them. However, once Sabine got to Nebraska, the plot withered on the vine a bit. Yes, there was drama involving the Fetters in general and discovering the truth about Parsifal’s childhood and even the budding relationships (in all senses of that word) – but none of it was really anything that seemed to matter. There was no heft to the novel and I think, to be honest, it needed a bit of that weight. The fact that Phan died of AIDS is mentioned (I believe) once and while I think that the world is just fine without another horrible AIDS story, there was so much left undiscussed about Phan and Parsifal that I longed for a book about them when they were alive. Also, there never seemed to be a real digestion of the fact that SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
Guy killed his father. It comes out and there’s certainly time taken to try to understand things… but, as often as the incident keeps coming up, it ends up sort of seeming unimportant. Glossed over. Too easily taken. Perhaps that’s part of the moving-on process coming out of grief – but the weight of that revelation seemed to fade all too quickly. This moment is indicative of a larger trend throughout the novel, especially in the second half: a curious lack of weight to the proceedings.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Despite that lack of weight, the undeniable beauty of Patchett’s prose and the sheer literary relaxation that comes from reading one of her novels means this simply couldn’t be any lower than a 4. There were moments of predictability (seriously, from the minute we met Kitty, I was like “…well, this is gonna end up happening at some point” – although I found myself rooting for it, not feeling gypped at having figured it out) and a certain tension that was lacking which most people need in order to be propelled onto the next page… but I found it rather relaxing, in a strange way. I can’t say I liked it in the view of a long-term trend – but I enjoyed a book that was very much life without the weight of story getting in the way. Oh, and I LOVED the fact that their rabbit was named Rabbit. Loved it.