Book Quote:

“[Americans] are the most turbulent, unpeaceful, least-contented people[…] Clearly there is nothing less suited to meditation than democracy. You will never find, as in aristocracies, one class that sits back in its own comfort and another that will not stir itself because it despairs of ever improving its status. In America, everyone is in a state of agitation: some to attain power, others to grab wealth, and when they cannot move, they rock.”

Book Review:

Review by Mike Frechette (APR 23, 2010)

The quote above makes Americans seem certifiably insane. And perhaps this is how many Americans appeared to French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville during his now famous visit to America’s shores in the early nineteenth century. Though not wildly popular for many years, Tocqueville’s masterpiece Democracy in America has become standard university reading and has been heralded as the greatest, most prophetic assessment of America ever produced. Scholars have poured over its pages, and multiple biographers have attempted to capture the man who penned its eloquent insightful lines. Most recently, award-winning author Peter Carey has created an imaginative historical fiction based on the life of Tocqueville and his fruitful time in the new nation.

The novel is called Parrot and Olivier in America, a title whose drabness thankfully does not match the excellence of the storytelling. The structure is simple, with chapters that alternate between the first-person viewpoints of the two main characters, Parrot and Olivier. Parrot, so nicknamed because of his ability to imitate, grows up the lower-class son of an itinerant printer until authorities arrest his father for counterfeiting. Thereafter raised by a one-armed marquis, Parrot is forced to spend his adult life as the marquis’s servant instead of becoming an artist as he envisioned in childhood.

Olivier, representing Tocqueville, grows up in post-revolutionary France as a child of a declining aristocracy. With democracy on the rise, the political world has increasingly less space and tolerance for the social class to which Olivier belongs. Like Tocqueville, Olivier journeys to America as an adult to study its penal system. And Parrot, whose marquis has a vaguely defined relationship with Olivier’s mother, is sent along to be Olivier’s transcriber and spy. What develops is, as one might suspect, a friendship that could only be possible in a brave, new nation where social class has been turned on its head in favor of industriousness, the accumulation of wealth, and unprecedented social mobility.

Having already been published abroad, early reviews noted that this newest publication continues Carey’s best traits as a writer. Most novels contain maybe a handful of memorable, quote-worthy lines. However, entire passages in Parrot and Olivier in America will strike readers with their eloquence and truthfulness, particularly American readers who discern themselves in Olivier’s assessment of the new nation and its inhabitants. At one point he thinks, “It is strange in New York and Philadelphia, to see the feverish enthusiasm which accompanies Americans’ pursuit of prosperity and the way they are ceaselessly tormented by the vague fear that they have failed to choose the shortest route to achieve it.” Like Tocqueville, Olivier finds much to celebrate about America, but he remains critical of the nation’s obsession with accumulating wealth and its potential to prevent the development of high culture. The destructive commercialization of art in America is a theme that preoccupies a significant portion of the story. Whereas Parrot takes advantage of the ready market, Oliver worries that such commercialization will lead to a culture completely dictated by the tastes of the middle class.

In addition to writing well, Carey should also be praised for keeping the story at the forefront of the novel. Parrot and Olivier in America is somewhat reminiscent of Sinclair’s The Jungle, another novel about a young America with political ideology at its center. While The Jungle deteriorates into an ideological manifesto, though, Parrot and Olivier never loses sight of the plot, characters, and their personal struggle. America and political ideologies are certainly additional characters in Carey’s book, but only as a backdrop to the more engaging, personal narratives of Parrot and Olivier.

In short, this novel offers much to be enjoyed, even for those unfamiliar with Carey or Tocqueville. The alternating inner monologues of Parrot and Olivier are never dull, and Carey clearly recognizes the importance of humor in storytelling. Witty, snobbish criticisms come easy for a French aristocrat surveying a provincial new nation. After dining at the home of one of his new acquaintances, Olivier remarks, “That night I dined as the Americans dined, that is, I had a vast amount of ham. There was no wine at all and no one seemed to think there should be.” Skillful plot management also stands out as one of Carey’s strengths. Much like a Dickens novel, characters from the beginning surprise the reader by unexpectedly reappearing later on and proving to be essential catalysts for plot and character development. In a novel about realizing great expectations, underdogs like Parrot discover a place where their own volition leads to success and is not stamped out by a rigid social hierarchy. In this sense, Australian-born writer Peter Carey has recreated the classic rags-to-riches American tale. Certainly there is much to criticize in America as Olivier points out, but for the likes of Parrot, at least “there is no tyranny.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 83 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf; 1 edition (April 20, 2010)
REVIEWER: Mike Frechette
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Peter Carey (check out the Granta interview)
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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April 23, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Facing History, Literary, National Book Award Finalist, Reading Guide, United States, y Award Winning Author

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