Parrot and Olivier in America

by Peter Carey

Paperback, 2011

Call number




Vintage (2011), Edition: Reprint, 400 pages


Fiction. Literature. Historical Fiction. HTML:Parrot and Olivier in America has been shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. From the two-time Booker Prize�??winning author comes an irrepressibly funny new novel set in early nineteenth-century America. Olivier�??an improvisation on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville�??is the traumatized child of aristocratic survivors of the French Revolution. Parrot is the motherless son of an itinerant English printer. They are born on different sides of history, but their lives will be connected by an enigmatic one-armed marquis. When Olivier sets sail for the nascent United States�??ostensibly to make a study of the penal system, but more precisely to save his neck from one more revolution�??Parrot will be there, too: as spy for the marquis, and as protector, foe, and foil for Olivier. As the narrative shifts between the perspectives of Parrot and Olivier, between their picaresque adventures apart and together�??in love and politics, prisons and finance, homelands and brave new lands�??a most unlikely friendship begins to take hold. And with their story, Peter Carey explores the experiment of American democracy with dazzling inventiveness and with all the richness and surprise of characterization, imagery, and language that we have come to expect from thi… (more)

Media reviews

"There are engaging, funny scenes throughout this picaresque tale, but the travelogue grows rickety and stalls too often."
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"Quirky and erudite, but the payoff in human-interest terms is meager."
"But this conclusion in no way dampens this dashing novel – for it is in the testing of assumptions, in Garmont and Parrot's challenging of each other, that its beauty and intelligence lies."
The narrative proceeds in leaps and bounds, sometimes with a hop backwards, omitting connections, giving an impression above all, perhaps, of confusion – confusion of event and motive, incomprehension, a vast drama without structure. The language is vivid, forceful and poetic (though I wish
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Olivier's aristocratic locution was free of grammatical blunders such as "of she toward whom", "of she who I affected to be unaware of", "to he who I intended to make my father-in-law"). There are terrific set pieces, such as the burning of the forgers' house – moments Dickensian in their vividness. Themes of fire and burning run through the story. An early kind of bicycle appears, with much discussion and even an illustration, and later on an American bicycle enters the tale. Are there hidden significances? I don't know. It's a dazzling, entertaining novel. Should one ask for more?
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"In the end, the novel’s richness can’t disguise the fact that the plot rather lags behind the ideas driving it. That said, it’s still one hell of a ride."

User reviews

LibraryThing member BlackSheepDances
Don’t read the book reviews….

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
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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.
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LibraryThing member stonelaura
“Parrot and Olivier in America,” double Booker Prize-winning author Peter Carey's eleventh book, is a rollicking, rambling, rakish look at unexpected friendship, art and burgeoning democracy.

Loosely based on Alexis de Tocqueville (but don't let that scare you away) Carey has created the
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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.
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LibraryThing member booksun
Interesting story and it gave insight into the history of the revolution in France, the beginning of American democracy and the differences between classes in those days. But for me it lacked suspense and emotional bondage. The story was too long and sometimes I felt irritated by Oliver his
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stupidity. The parrot was a nice character. The book must have been based on a lot of research and I can agree that it is a good read for those interested in American and French history. But for me not good enough.
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LibraryThing member jasonlf
Peter Carey's writing in this book is brilliant, especially his alternating pair of highly unreliable narrators. Much of the story is fascinating and the observations thought provoking. But in the end the fact that I didn't find myself really caring about any of the characters was a real minus.

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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.
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LibraryThing member thorold
I was looking forward to reading this, but it didn't live up to expectations. Lots of nice lines, some very good bits and pieces of stories, but when he puts it all together it doesn't really seem to add up to anything. There's a bit of a send-up of de Tocqueville, some vaguely Jeremy
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Bentham/Foucault stuff about prisons, a Dickensian tale of forgery and insurance fraud, and a master-servant plot that is obviously supposed to make us think of Papageno and Tamino. Some of the period details are a bit ropey too, especially when he ventures on board a Royal Navy ship taking prisoners to Australia and clearly either doesn't have a clue or is taking perverse pleasure in setting the teeth of naval fiction buffs on edge. Carey has never been the most focussed of writers, but he usually manages to make some sort of sense emerge from the chaos: this time it doesn't.
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LibraryThing member careburpee
Using dual narrators, Peter Carey deftly portrays America, and to a lesser extent France and England, in the time frame following the French Revolution.

Our first narrator, is Olivier de Garmont, who by necessity engendered from his standing as a French aristocrat, must vacate France. To avoid
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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.
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LibraryThing member stevedore
Initially I sympathised with both the language and views of the Englishman, Parrot. I found the Frenchman, Olivier,irritating and affected. But, interestingly, as the book continued, my sympathies switched. I guess I must have become more aristocratic as I was reading? Normally I'm a political
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junkie, but this time I guess I found the two love stories more interesting than all the stuff about the political differences between France and America, and the nature of class in society.
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LibraryThing member nittnut
It really took me awhile to get into this story. I struggled with Olivier's voice. I think the idea was to set up the story and also develop this sense of convolution and intrigue in the lives of the nobility of France during this time period. It was a bit exhausting - not the writing - the people.
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The writing is wonderful.

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).
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LibraryThing member gwendolyndawson
In Parrot and Olivier in America, Peter Carey uses the medium of a historical novel to explore the concept of democracy as it existed in the early years of the United States. French aristocrat Olivier is sent by his family to America to study the new nation's prison system and to escape the
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hostilities threatening aristocrats in his home country. Once in America, Olivier is captivated and puzzled by the country's democratic ideals. In his travels, Olivier is accompanied by John "Parrot" Larrit, who acts as Olivier's secretary. Ultimately, the relationship between Olivier and Parrot undergoes a dramatic change as it encounters the egalitarian spirit of America. The character of Olivier is Carey's fictionalization of the great French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the influential Democracy in America. However, Parrot and Olivier in America goes well beyond a mere retelling of the travels of a historic personality to create a complex world of interlinking characters and events. The story unfolds through the alternating narrations of Olivier and Parrot. By the end of the novel, Parrot's character, wise and full of heart, has stolen the show, but the spoiled and self-focused Olivier shows eventual signs of reformation. Carey refuses to tie up all the loose ends, making the novel seem all the more realistic and complex. Parrot and Olivier in America is a fascinating read when viewed as an intellectual examination of the early days of American democracy and its effects on human interactions, particularly those between diverse classes. More superficially, the novel also succeeds as a good, page-turning story.
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LibraryThing member alexrichman
A first foray in historical fiction, confirming my suspicion that I wouldn't really enjoy the old literary style and knowing winks to events and people I didn't care to learn about the first time around. I also wasn't too fond of the narrative switching between the two protagonists, as the timing
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always seemed a little off; however, the main characters were both very likable, and there was the odd chuckle here and there. Cautiously recommended.
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LibraryThing member hairball
I'm fairly sure Carey could write a book on any topic whatsoever and I'd read it happily, regardless of whether I had any previous interest in said topic. I've enjoyed every book of his I've ever read.
LibraryThing member littlegeek
Entertaining. Not Carey's best, but middling Carey is better than 90% of everything else.
LibraryThing member PennyAnne
I love Peter Carey's writing but don't always like his books. This time, love and like were united and I can say I greatly enjoyed this tale of the French aristocrat (whose family had survived the Revolution) and the English 'printer's devil' who became his servant. Olivier de Garmont and John
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"Parrot" Larrit make an unlikely couple but over the course of the book and with the help of the democratising air of America the two gain an understanding of and affection for each other and the development of their relationship makes for quite delightful reading. Using the real-life adventures of Alexis de Tocqueville as a starting point, Carey paints a vivid picture of 'old France' and 'new America' and does it all with charm and wit (and not a little sarcasm!) eg. Parrot's final assertions that "there is no tyranny in America and never could be" and "the great ignoramus will not be elected" - priceless!
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LibraryThing member Chris469
I was a little disappointed in this historical novel; was hoping I'd like it more. The author, Peter Carey, does have a great way with words at times. And the sense of France and America in the 1830s is evoked nicely in various passages; you get a good feel for the social and physical environment
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of those times. Still, the narrative flow was often awkward, such as when we get a flashback to Parrot on a penal ship to Australia. I never found myself liking or caring about the characters all that much. The plot developments weren't any more interesting than you'd find in anyone's personal diary. The story itself didn't amount to all that much. The one-armed Frenchman was an odd character who I could never quite figure out. Would have a hard time recommending it to a friend.
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LibraryThing member TracyK1
I liked this book. I had read a review of it and it looked like an interesting read so when our library got it in I checked it out. I loved the beginning, and my interested was still being held through the middle. There was a lot going on and the story wandered some but you could see that the
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author was headed somewhere. I had a problem with the last hundred pages or so. The author just seemed to be wandering around endlessly. I read to the end of the book but did not find the ending to be satisfactory.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
A well written book with excellent prose, interesting characters, and a good perspective on the times. I had always wanted to read a book by Peter Carey and chose this because it was a National Book Award finalist. Unfortunately, the book did not totally engage me. The main characters were given to
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wild mood swings and inconsistencies. There were some plot elements that were hard to follow. It was as if Carey wished to stuff his book with every literary tool that he had at his disposable. It was almost a bit too much. Glad I read it from a historical perspective and would recommend it on that level.
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LibraryThing member gbelik
This novel is based on Alexis de Toqueville's visit to America. His evolving understanding of America is mirrored in the growing democratization of his relationship with his servant. I thought it took too long to get going, but did improve once the two got to America.
LibraryThing member Oregonreader
Parrot is a lower-class English boy whose father is an itinerant engraver with no real home. After a series of misadventures, Parrot is separated from his father and rescued by the Marquis de Tilbot, a Royalist French spy. He is the link that connects Parrot and Olivier, a young French aristocrat
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born right after the Revolution. Olivier's parents had escaped the guillotine and still held their ancestral estate. Fearing another revolution, the parents send the by-then young man to America on the pretext of writing a book on the American prison system. Unwilling to go, he is tricked onto the ship by family friend, Tilbot, who also arranges for the older Parrot to go as his servant. The heart of the book then begins with the experiences of the two in America. Olivier sees the new, uncultured society through the eyes of privilege, used to having his comfort and wishes a priority. In letters to his mother, he comments on the strange ways of these people. This, of course, leads to comparisons with de Toqueville's book. Parrot finds himself a servant in a society that worships the principles of equality. Their very different experiences are what you might expect given their backgrounds. Carey surrounds them with fascinating characters. With surprising plot turns, the reader is swept along. This is the first book I have read of Carey's and was struck by his remarkable craftsmanship in telling this story.
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LibraryThing member polarbear123
An astoundingly good book that manages to not only examine complex issues like the transition of constitutions from aristocracies to democracies but also packsa a good story in with a whole lot of humour. Great characters with other-wordly storylines are woven in throughout the narrative and the
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sense of a changing world as Olivier and Parrot travel around is immense. How will this changing world effect our heroes? For beter or worse? I for one felt the characters were immensely likeable with a lot of depth to them aswell. This is the second Carey book that I have read and I am looking forward to reading more of an author who is rapidly creeping into my top ten list!
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LibraryThing member pnorman4345
This was great fun. Peter Carey starts with the story of de Tocqueville and lets his imagination run. On the serious side it is concerned with trying to get into the skin of a French aristocrat and understand his gradual changes as he lives in a democratic society.
LibraryThing member applemcg
i liked parrot. irene intervened just about the time i was ready to digest this book in behalf of our bookclub. some books are the victim of history. i had to give it up when our heros had reached manhattan's shores, and were beginning their experience of life in the new world. maybe if I'd picked
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it up there at the outset, the urge to complete it would have been stronger.

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.
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LibraryThing member TheBookJunky
Big disappointment to me despite the rave reviews and appearances on top ten lists. I've liked everything else i've read by him more than this book. It was too ambitious -- full of promise ultimately unfulfilled. “…The Revolution had drowned her beauty in a lake of fear.” p79
LibraryThing member Niecierpek
Lots of fun. Unbelievably well developed characters, and lots of good insights esp. on democracy, capitalism and the United States. Somewhat lacking in the plot department, though. It’s as if the author got so caught up in his enjoyment of creating the characters, that he from time to time forgot
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that he had a plot to propel forward as well. Overall though, a great read.
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LibraryThing member EpicTale
I really enjoyed "Parrot and Olivier in America", the first book by Peter Carey that I've read (and, I hope, it won't be the last!). Carey did his homework to create a realistic historical framework in which to launch his characters and story. The book is well written and flows smoothly, quickly,
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engagingly, and interestingly. I liked the stories of the book's two main protagonists, their personal transformations, and the relationship that evolved between the once-unrepentant aristocrat and his idealistic everyman helpmate. Carey gives the reader lots to think about, and does so with classy writing and vivid imagery.
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LibraryThing member RickGeissal
I slogged through it all, finally, but it took effort and two stops. I suppose I am not as discerning a reader as I thought: I cannot understand how this book won the Booker. It is interesting, but never felt compelling, nor did it - IMO - have beautiful language usage.




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