"Olivier is a young aristocrat, one of an endangered species born in France just after the Revolution. Parrot, the son of an itinerant English printer, wanted to be an artist but has ended up in middle age as a servant. When Olivier sets sail for the New World - ostensibly to study its prisons, but in reality to avoid yet another revolution - Parrot is sent with him, as spy, protector, foe and foil. Through their adventures with women and money, incarceration and democracy, writing and painting, they make an unlikely pair. But where better for unlikely things to flourish than in the glorious, brand-new experiment, America? A dazzlingly inventive reimagining of Alexis de Tocqueville's famous journey, Parrot and Olivier in America brilliantly evokes the Old World colliding with the New. Above all, it is a wildly funny, tender portrait of two men who come to form an almost impossible friendship, and a completely improbable work of art" -- Back cover
A strange way to start a book review, yes? In regards to this title, however, and all the buzz that has surrounded it since its release, I think it’s necessary to offset some of the descriptions of this book.
Many, if not all, of the reviews of Parrot & Olivier in America refer to Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, pretty much the standard for history in the early US. They connect the character of Olivier with that of de Tocqueville himself, and suddenly the idea of reading this book sounds like a snooze. It’s not that way at all, and I think while the similarity exists and may be intentional by the author, it’s not a very good way to introduce this book.
Parrot & Olivier is an insightful yet amusing narrative of the lives of two wildly different characters, as well as the time they lived in. First, Olivier…the son of French aristocrats who needs an escape plan that doesn’t necessarily look like an escape. He needs to get out of France for his protection after the French Revolution, so after some thought it’s decided to send him to America to research the penal system in the colonies. It’s a useful out, as whatever he may learn is politically valuable in France, plus it gets him out of the country in a perilous time. Parrot is an older man, a survivor of many political battles and social conflicts, and his ability to survive in desperate conditions makes him the perfect chaperone for Olivier. Parrot, of course, hates the thought of babysitting the privileged son, and has to be coerced into leaving. It should be noted that before the departure ever takes place, Carey tells the story of both of these men separately, relating their character as well as significant details about the Revolution and how they had to use their wiles to survive.
Once they leave France, the story picks up even more, and the pace is fast as they both journey into both a new land and new situations. They end up bickering, fighting, separating, and finally bumping into each other again. The scene that finds them reunited is a street fight, where Parrot thinks he’s saving Olivier, only to be unexpectedly saved by the well-armed boy. It’s a funny moment, one of many, but it points to the difficulties of survival in this new place without some sort of backing.
For his part, Olivier has no interest in the study of the prisons, and yet his actions lead Parrot to have to experience them firsthand. The interaction between the two and the period details, especially in New York, make this a fun, lighthearted read. One thing that Alexis de Tocqueville said, however, in his book, does apply beautifully to the theme of Parrot & Olivier:
“The growth of nations presents something analogous to this; they all bear some marks of their origin. The circumstances that accompanied their birth and contributed to their development affected the whole term of their being.”
Carey uses this novel to actually study how these two men developed from their vastly disparate births, with a conclusion that leaves you pondering the entire concept of class, friendship, and the sense of belonging.
Our first narrator, is Olivier de Garmont, who by necessity engendered from his standing as a French aristocrat, must vacate France. To avoid political censure and create a face-saving reason for running away, it is decided that he will travel to America and write a book, supposedly for the French government, on the prison system in the New World. Olivier’s character is loosely based on Alexis de Tocqueville and his writing of Democracy in America.
Through various machinations of plot our other narrator, John “Parrot” Larrit, a poor Englishman of humble beginnings, finds himself thrown into the position of servant to Olivier and on his way to America as well.
By turns humorous, enlightening, touching, and gripping, Mr. Carey’s novel is an intricately complex page-turner of the very best sort. A portrait of the social culture of the America of the age is gently unfolded as the pampered, old world aristocrat and the down-trodden servant begin to equalize in matters of intellect, patriotism, cunning, respect, love and friendship.
The audio, put out by Blackstone and narrated by Humphrey Bower, will without a doubt be my number one audio for 2011. Given that this year I have listened to far more books than I have read in print, that is quite high praise. Mr. Bower so perfectly captures the accent and persona of both characters that I was surprised to realize that the book, which uses the format of alternating chapters being narrated from the viewpoint of each character in turn, did not use two different actors, one for each voice.
I absolutely loved this novel. It has everything a reader could wish for in a good work of historical fiction in terms of research smoothly intertwined within the plot, compelling characters (both from history and Mr. Carey’s imagination), and vivid prose that drew me in whether the topic was of a personal or societal nature. Whether you choose to listen to Humphrey Bower’s masterful performance or let Peter Carey’s words speak for themselves, this is an absolute must read.
Loosely based on Alexis de Tocqueville (but don't let that scare you away) Carey has created the character of Olivier de Garmont, a young, effete French noble still reeling from the slaughter of the revolution, and has paired him with Englishman, John Larrit (known at Parrot for his uncanny ability to mimic), a grizzled former printer's devil, as his unlikely servant. From alternate points of view we discover America from their vastly different perspectives as we also learn about their vastly different histories. Uniting the two in their reluctant partnership is the looming presence of the Marquis de Tilbot, the one-armed tour-de-force who commandeers both characters in sometimes subtle and oftentimes profound ways. Also uniting the two colorful characters is a love of art, as well as the love of feisty portraitist Mathilde. As they negotiate the daunting new country of America, under the guise of Olivier writing a study of America's prisons, both men discover as much about themselves as they do about this new democracy.
Olivier’s take on all things American provides for some delightful comments. “Here, in this compartment perfectly constructed for the contemplation of the American sublime, was placed the inevitable machine, that awful monument to democratic restlessness—a rocking chair . . . there is nothing less suited to meditation than democracy. In America, everyone is in a state of agitation: some to attain power, others to grab wealth, and when they cannot move, they rock.” From the porch as a metaphor for equality in enjoying nature to immigrant Americans redefining themselves as they abandon their pasts and embrace their new future, Olivier’s jaded look at democracy provides for many humorous moments.
Carey loves to fill his books with extravagant Dickensian characters. Picaresque is the term often used to describe “Parrot and Olivier in America,” and while it’s true that the book begins with an innocent waif and is filled with clever rogues, this is really a complex book of ideas and observations that also has moments of beauty and delight.
The book tells a highly fictionalized account of Tocqueville's travels to America, with an even more fictionalized English servant who accompanies him to spy on him but then takes more to the American style and tries to express himself as an artist.
The cast of ancillary characters in this picaresque tale is just as good and you have to read the novel to appreciate that they cannot be reduced to their simple descriptors of English forgers, a French spy, a French courtesan/artist, a dishonest American capitalist, and the closest thing to the bourgeoisie offered by New England.
But when the hero's mother is using ruses to try to break up his imminent marriage to an American girl and you find that you don't much care one way or the other if she succeeds, you know that a book is falling short of perfection -- and well short of the Dickens' novels to which Carey is too often compared.
The story really gets moving once Parrot and Olivier are on the boat to America. Then it is an amusing romp through New York and the surrounding states peppered with allusions to Tocqueville. In fact, if I had not read Tocqueville prior to reading this book, I think I would have missed out on a lot of fun.
While I never really warmed to Olivier, Parrot became more interesting as the book progressed. He was the character who really embraced the idea of America, the new-ness and the opportunity. He was also an incredibly loyal person, without having any real reason to be so.
Some passages I particularly enjoyed:
Olivier: Oh monumental figures of the Revolution, great figures of our past. Oh mammoth fools, mighty sansculottes, elephantine dupes.
Olivier: Here in this compartment perfectly constructed for the contemplation of the American sublime, was placed the inevitable machine, that awful monument to democratic restlessness - a rocking chair.
Parrot: He stood. We embraced. He gave me the cup, the brandy pretty much untouched. A screech owl cried, despairing, hauntingly lovely. He sighed and walked up to the house alone, poor sausage (and that's the end of the book).
i won't challenge the assertion of carey's articulate pen, and i do recall quite a few chuckles, especially at parrot's expense. but, i can only stand in front of the mona lisa for so long. many years ago, while an undergraduate, a mentor, bob johnson, in mpls (where else) observed, "you don't have to spend five minutes in new york to know you don't want to live there. so it is with a book". parrot and olivier in american kept postponing that five minutes, until the clock ran out.