Steve's Reviews > Parrot and Olivier in America

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
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's review
Mar 31, 2011

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If you’ve heard anything at all about this book, you know that it’s inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who in the early 1800’s wrote what was considered an influential and insightful portrait of young America. Olivier was Alexis in roughly the same way that Cate Blanchett was Bob Dylan. Historical fiction that’s inspired by real people, and that doesn’t even use real names, is free to make up relationships, back stories, dialogue, and events to make the narrative more interesting. In this case, that proved a somewhat elusive goal. It tended to drag at times.

The premise was a good one. It began in post-Revolutionary France where young Olivier, his family, and their fortunes were on a roller coaster headed primarily down. His blood remained bleu, though. Parrot was a different story – literally. He and Olivier traded first person accounts throughout the book, and spent a fair amount of it without overlap. In contrast to his noble counterpart, Parrot was not to the manor born. Along with his itinerant father he ended up working for a printer that they later learned ran a side operation making “legal” tender. This was frowned upon in certain circles and poor Master Parrot found himself separated and made the servant of a shady one-armed Frenchman. The scene was set for adventure.

After a series of filler stories (less adventurous than you might hope), the two finally joined on a boat ride to America. Parrot acted as Olivier’s secretary, scribe, and de facto servant. In the beginning they shared a mutual distrust for each other. Of course, it was easy to predict that this would not last. That said, they took their sweet time about it. And the rapprochement was never fully intact, it seemed. Maybe part of the reason for this was that neither was altogether deserving of respect; Olivier especially, I’d say. It was like the whole of their time in the states they alternated between good traits and bad ones. Tick-tock, to and fro, back and forth – it got so I didn’t care anymore how they might end up on my ledger of likability.

I’ve probably made this sound too negative. There were two aspects of the book that I did like. One was seeing how, or whether, Parrot would reinvent himself in the Land of Opportunity. The rags to riches theme was a big one. The other thing I liked was Olivier’s reaction to the unadulterated democracy (and meritocracy) that he witnessed. He was astute enough to recognize the vast differences compared to the status-conscious European way of things, but was also reluctant to cede his class prerogative. He thought it was notable how everybody in America works, how land was up for grabs (even for the common folks), how a simple woodsman (Andrew Jackson) could become President, and how it was that a farmer’s youngest son could possibly hope to rise above his station. His snobbery was on full display when he talked about how provincial this new world seemed and how dangerous it was for the “tyranny of the majority” to trump those who were born to make more informed decisions in matters of style and state. Those parts of the book made me curious enough about the real de Tocqueville to read the wiki entry. Let’s give credit to Carey for that, at least.
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message 1: by Susan (new) - added it

Susan Although I'm disappointed that this was only a three-star book, I greatly admire this review. Is the review enough to satisfy my curiosity about a book that seemed so promising? Not sure about that yet, though it's not on the immediate horizon of my to-read list.

And if your curiosity about de Tocqueville persists, we do indeed have a copy of Democracy in America on our bookshelf. It was a gift from my brother, remember? He can't shake the notion that my diligence about completing high school homework assignments, coupled with my preference for reading novels instead of getting drunk during said years, means that I am eager to read lengthy non-fiction works that extol America's unique destiny, manifest or not.

Steve I keep thinking I should go back through my ratings and make them all more consistent with what Goodreads says they mean. For more recent books I've already begun. I went with 3 stars here because that's supposed to equate to liking it. Please don't be scared off because of my new scale. (I'm a terrible equivocator when a review may have dissuaded you from reading something you might appreciate. This did have its good points.)

As for Democracy in America, put me in that same boat. Maybe a skim is all we'd ever need of that sort of edification. Let's make a deal that we don't have to prove ourselves to your brother or anyone else by reading the "right" kind of books.

BTW, I had to laugh at the way you put things in your comment. For one, I guess staying sober and doing your homework did differentiate you back then. The contrast between siblings can be palpable, can't it? I also liked your tie-in (with a twist) to the 15 letter challenge in today's crossword. Annexation justification indeed.

Brenda Shoot. I had such high hopes for it. Don't worry, I'll still read it---your 3-star rating hasn't discouraged me, just reinforced what I already thought as I thumbed through it a couple of times.

Steve My hopes had been high, too. That might have been part of the downgrade -- it didn't clear the bar I had set for it.

Not that it matters since you're committing to it anyway, but on a 6 point scale I'd give it a 4.

I love recommending favorites -- David Mitchell being my man of the moment. And I would happily warn against anything awful. I've got no strength of conviction on this one, though: part good, part meh, all varying shades of gray.

message 5: by Susan (new) - added it

Susan So glad you noticed my not-so-subtle reference to what, so far at least, is the highlight of my day! Trying so hard not to whine about cold, rainy least we weren't so delusional as to go to Wrigley today!

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