Apr 08, 12
Read from July 15, 2011 to March 28, 2012
Based, ostensibly, on Alexis de Toqueville's travels to the United States during the intense promise of its infancy, Parrot and Olivier in America is slow to build, but worth the wait. As I read further, I realized that Peter Carey's off-putting (at least to me) beginning was a masterful way of establishing not only the main characters, but the mood of a country, an age, and its social architecture. Without this foundation, my experience of what Parrot (a coddled French noble) and Olivier (his servant) see in America, and how they respond to, it would have been nowhere near as rich as it turned out to be.
The protagonists' reactions are shaped by birth and history, and by what each sees--Oliver: fear; Parrot: opportunity--in what America (a country who handled its revolution very differently from France) represents. Their perspectives are also shaped by love, as each of them considers the meaning of a life shared with a strong female partner in the wild new land.
By the end of the book, Parrot and Olivier have each evolved--organically, it seemed to me--and have grown to respect each other in ways that would have surprised them at the beginning of their travels. Luckily, Carey doesn't set them up simply to embody contrasting ideas and ideals (old vs. new, tradition vs. innovation, past vs. future) in order to have us choose one over the other. Their mutual respect--although each is nevertheless convinced of the other's wrong-headedness--helps us recognize that each man makes valid points not only about the new country, but about how life itself should be lived. Peter Carey has written another wonderful book.