We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.


Ann Patchett's _Magician's Assistant_ _et aliae_ · 31 January 05

Dear Nobody,

I finally finished this novel late last night. Taken together
with Patchett’s Bel Canto, it makes an interesting
comparison with Jhabvala’s novels and stories—as well
as Susan Hill’s (about whom we talked on this list).

Most centrally what distinguishes Patchett from most
of the romances of the type her book belongs to is
her bleakness and melancholy is laced throughout with
comfort and merriment. It’s astonishing how she manages
this. My feeling is these elements of cheer are the result of
features of her stories and the angle of the plot-design.
(We do have such inadequate language for discussing
these important formal matters.) It was only when I was
well into The Magician’s Assistant that I realized it
was a story precisely analogous to Susan Hill’s _In the
Springtime of the Year_. In both a young woman’s husband
dies suddenly; in both she was utterly dependent on
him and he and she were highly unconventional in their
way of life; in both she is therefore left alone and is
prostrated by his death. Both are about her rejuvenation
or restoration to hope and activity as well as new kind
of unconventional socialization with a new group of
people. This paradigm of the sudden death of a husband,
prostration and plot-elaboration is common to women’s
romances, from the 18th century on.

Where Patchett differs strikingly—and thus obscures
what is at the center of her book is her tone. This is
partly the result of the economic group she places
her heroines in (from Bel Canto) too. They are
among the well-heeled, upper class, and have all
the amusing visiblia of success and status. Hill’s
heroines live in broken-down cottages on the edge
of rural areas. It’s also the heroine’s determined
presentation of herself as active as well as her
being in a profession which obscures her submissive
relationship with others and particularly the male.
It’s only after a while you begin to see that as
a magician’s assistant, Sabine has been playing
controlled sadomasochistic games in front of
audiences. She is sliced up; she obeys all her
master’s commands, at his beck and call utterly.
Gradually you discover that Parsifal (her long-time
companion) was gay, only married her in the last
year of his life, and had a permanent fellow male
gay companion who lived with them. Sabine
was a hanger-on—though chance (illness) also
killed off the gay companion and Sabine has
inherited everything Parsifal made. The whole
paraphernalia of magic is a distration: it entertains
and gives an illusive lift to everything.

In the second half of Sabine’s tale she goes to
visit Parsifal’s relatives. She was never told about
them. She discovers Parsifal lied about everything
to her. This family is your characteristic white
working-class or lower middle group in mid-America.
I was not surprized when Patchett presented them
with sympathy and respect—unlike most of
these romances where such people are much
more undercut and presented much less softly.
Not that Patchett underestimates the difficulty of
their lives: Parsifal it turns out murdered his father
who used to beat his mother; Parsifal’s sister lives
with a bullying-brute of a husband and has
two sons, one of whom promises to grow up
just such another as his father. The great
happiness of the women of this family is to go to
Wal-Mart, and this is presented from their point
of view as comfort, delight, ease. Comfort on
top of the lowest of expectations, that’s what it is.
Only by having these low expectations does the
comfort come. The family sits and watches a
Johnny Carson tape over and over again.

The novel concludes with Parsifal’s sister finally
leaving the bully-brute husband and beginning
a lesbian affair with Sabine. Sabine and her
new lover-friend, friend’s children and whoever
else wants to come along will soon decamp
back to the fancy house in Los Angeles.
There’s even a wedding at the end. Not that
we have not seen how frozen cold and generally
speaking without aspiration or opportunities
for achievement middle America is.

Hill’s book by contrast shows a long hard struggle
fo the heroine to adjust on her own. It’s not damned
if you do and damned if you don’t. Hill gives us
consolation through a plot which dramatizes a
moral homily about resignation and self-reliance.

I’ve very mixed feelings about Patchett all the while
enjoying the intelligent cheer and games she plays.
She flatters her readers continually. A small point:
when an opera named Partenope is introduced
in Bel Canto the third-person narrator calls
it "obscure." Patchett wouldn’t want her reader to
feel left out or not "with it" in modern culture. We
are continually flattered into feeling we are part of
the New Yorker set. We are flattered by being
given these pretty people whose larger impulses
are good-natured, not petty, not mean. Hill does
not flatter the reader through class associations
or visibilia, but she does shape the narrative to
make life meaningful. Her moving book on World
War One (Strange Meeting) ends with the hero
(a female presence nonetheless) literally turning´┐Ż
a corner, heading for a house where he has at
least some evidence which justifies a hope for a
family of friends and welcome.

I bring up Patchett’s Magician’s Assistant
because I just read it, but it also highlights what
I consider Jhabvala’s strengths: she’s much
truer to real life. Judy G on WW mentioned how it’s
just as possible Farid returns to London. Jhabvala’s
endings are often open-ended; nothing much
shaped here; just carry on. Jhabvala does not
flatter the reader or her characters. She estimates
things at their accurate estimate—with the larger
perspective the economic and class and money.
She does not create angles she can play with us
from.

Patchett does give us the women as community.
Hill doesn’t; it’s more like Jhabvala and Byatt.
Ah, I’ve been reading Fanny Trollope’s very late
novel, The Old and the New World, and
there we are given this strong central woman’s
presence (an alter ego for Trollope) at the
center of a woman’s community. The story is
one about emigration and the tone is mellow—Frances in old age living in Italy with her
older son can look back with some forgiveness,
though the book is fascinating for the occasional
scenes which reveal something of how
she and her companion-lover, Hervieu (with
whom she fled a violent ill husband, with
her younger children in tow), and
the children were actually treated where they
went. He emerges as despairing, horrified
when he realized what a failure of the imagination
they’d been guilty of, and guilty himself.
But here I’m bringing in autobiography as
I’ve not done for the Patchett or Hill books.

I’m not sure I’m eager to read Patchett’s
The Patron Saint of Liars. It’s about
an unwed mother (wait for it) who apparently
decides to keep the child. Surprize.
Surprize.

What makes me hesitate at the same
time as makes me curious is I guess
Patchett will justify lying: lying is fine
in relationships. Parsifal
lied, didn’t he? Jane Austen is not turning
over in her grave for having invented or
taken to visibility this genre because
we know from Mr Knightley that no relationship´┐Ż
can tell the whole truth. However, that’s
the not the same thing as suggesting it’s
fine to lie about basic fundamentals and
a lot, fine to drop people when you want—which is something Hill would not accept,
nor (another excellent romancer, really
ethical), Isabel Colegate. This would
make me ill. I joked with one of my classes
I had to give up teaching the first half
of literature as 43 grandparents died
in one term in one of my classes. I had
to give it up I said. Shades of Jill Spriggs
who wanted me to admire her $3000 wallpaper.

I did find cheap Patchett’s Truth a Beauty,
a memoir it’s said, about her friend who died and whose
face was made grotesque by a disease
to the point of making others fear seeing
her. The friend spent a life of having painful
operations. I’ve read hard critiques of Patchett
(I thought) which blamed her for using this material,

for telling truths people endlessly don’t want told,
but now I’m wondering just how she did
present her friend. Patchett seems to buy
into facades as a way of surviving. I hope
to read this one soon and write about it
here as it will connect to our threads
about female beauty.

These romance novels use the same kinds of
underlying materials. It’s like reading permutations
in a river of islands. You can see each one
clearly when you put it next to another of the
species.

Chava

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Posted by: Ellen

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