The Art of Disappearing has been compared to The Time Traveler’s Wife, but Ivy Pochoda’s prose is lusher, her characters more melancholy, her style more mysterious.
Mel is a traveling textile designer and salesperson, while Toby is a magician whose magic is more than an illusion: it’s a gift and a burden, and it becomes an obsession. While it’s true that the two meet cutely at a remote bar in the middle of the desert, the romance that ensues is anything but formulaic. That’s what makes Ivy Pochoda’s first novel, The Art of Disappearing, so captivating. It’s about love and magic, but it’s far from a Hollywood romance.
Exploring why Mel and Toby are so intensely drawn to each other is one of the book’s strongest threads—could Toby could have conjured Mel to his side? Are they predestined for each other? Is it just a coincidence? Whatever is at play, within 24 hours the two end up marrying in a Las Vegas wedding chapel and honeymooning at the Laughing Jackalope Motel.
Toby has dreams of making it big as a Vegas showman, but it soon becomes clear that his magic has consequences, both for him professionally and for his relationship with Mel. In some ways, his unusual magic makes him more vulnerable than most magicians, who rely on sleight-of-hand and illusion to captivate the audience. On the other hand, Toby’s gift allows him to shift reality in breathtaking ways. His talent is just as much a curse, since he doesn’t entirely understand it. After a trick has a disastrous outcome, and with a spurned couple from Toby’s past snooping around trying to sabotage his big break, the lovebirds leap from Vegas to Amsterdam, where a cadre of aging magicians urges Toby into their fold. In trying to make sense of things, manipulation becomes an obsession for Toby.
Throughout The Art of Disappearing, Pochoda toys with ideas of predestination and power dynamics in relationships. The union of Toby and Mel is a coupling of two profoundly talented individuals—since Mel is an inspired designer in her own right—but Toby’s craft is showier, and it’s rooted in public admiration. Mel has been damaged by a complicated relationship with her brother Max, who disappeared from her life twice when she was growing up; vivid flashbacks show that this is not the first time Mel has struggled to keep pace with a loved one who has his sights set on something not of this world.
As the story unfolds, the reader wonders if this talented woman is going down the well-trod path of so many wives subsumed by their husbands’ fame. As for Toby, the star of the show, will he always choose glory over love? Pochoda’s prose is colorful, light-filled, panoramic:
“Amsterdam seemed to me to be tinted with the last paint coaxed from the corners of a once-vivid watercolor palette. The sky that peeked between the gabled buildings was not the blue promised by the famous Delft tiles, but a blue that has been stretched thin, made gray with too much water.”
These descriptive, liquid scenes carry the reader along smoothly for a while, making the occasional abrupt scene change even more jarring. After one small, intimate conversation between Toby and Mel that seems to take place on a lonely road in the desert, they step out of the beat-up minivan, leave the keys, and we realize they’re at the airport, on their way to Amsterdam. Such set changes seem to happen at the wave of a wand, like magic, in keeping with the rhythm of the novel.
Though The Art of Disappearing has been compared to The Time Traveler’s Wife, Pochoda’s novel is, in some ways, more elaborate than Niffenegger’s—the prose is lusher, the characters more melancholy, the style more mysterious. Though the story takes place in the modern day, the action seems to take place outside of time—in an abandoned tract house from the 1960s, on a mesa in the Mojave desert, at a masquerade rave in the Amsterdam catacombs.
Toby’s magic is often mystifying, but in the same way that Mel’s conversations with fabric, and her brother Max’s symbiotic relationship to water, seem organic to the characters. The mechanics are not written to be analyzed and dissected—instead, readers are asked to suspend their disbelief and enjoy this tumultuous ride through marriage and ambition, loneliness and devotion, magic and reality.