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Parrot and Olivier in America Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 20, 2010

3.8 out of 5 stars 122 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, April 2010: In this vivid and visceral work of historical fiction, two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey imagines the experiences of Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French political philosopher and author of Democracy in America. Carey brings de Tocqueville to life through the fictionalized character of Olivier de Garmont, a coddled and conceited French aristocrat. Olivier can only begin to grasp how the other half lives when forced to travel to the New World with John "Parrot" Larrit, a jaded survivor of lifelong hardship who can’t stand his young master who he is expected to spy on for the overprotective Maman Garmont back in Paris. Parrot and Olivier are a mid-nineteenth-century Oscar and Felix who represent the highest and lowest social registers of the Old World, yet find themselves unexpectedly pushed together in the New World. This odd couple’s stark differences in class and background, outlook and attitude—which are explored in alternating chapters narrated by each—are an ingenious conceit for presenting to contemporary readers the unique social experiment that was democracy in the early years of America. --Lauren Nemroff

The Democracy of Story-Telling: A Review of Parrot and Olivier in America by Colum McCann

Colum McCann is the author of Zoli, Dancer and, most recently, Let the Great World Spin, which won the National Book Award for Fiction and was the Amazon editors' pick as the Best Book of 2009. Read his review of Parrot and Olivier in America:

Faulkner famously wrote that the past is not dead, it's not even past. Every now and then a voice comes along to make the proper claim that nobody should forget and, even more radically, that nobody should be forgotten. These voices remind us that life is not yet written down: there is more to the story than meets the original word. Peter Carey has made an exquisite art of this sort of exploration into history and language: he smashes the atom of story-telling and comes up with quirks and quarks and quarries.

Carey is a rogue in the very best sense of the word: we are led by delight into a story that is bound to be profound, complex, tender, demanding, reckless, rigorous, charming, and, indeed, true. The value of good literature is that there's always another story to unfold. And in the unfolding, we are led by mystery towards discovery. Strap on the Carey boots, you’ll encounter new lands.

Carey's newest novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, is the story of two men who begin their lives on different ends of the human spectrum. Olivier is an aristocrat, born in France just after the Revolution, while Parrot is the son of an itinerant English printer. Part of Carey's provocative genius is that, even in the title, Parrot is named before Olivier: it’s the late 18th century and both men have swallowed the handcuffs of history. The servant and master. The dreamer and the dreamt. The men travel to America together, land in New York, embark on journeys that have both private and mythic overtones in the "you-knighted states." Ramshackle prisons. Convict ships. Broadway brawls. Land deals. Penal colonies. The small revolutions of human desire and failure.

The men develop an understanding and a friendship and a complexity that is a hallmark of a Carey novel: it is a wonder, as he points out, how many lives can be held within one single skin. The story is an examination of how landscape forms character, and the instinct towards that most democratic of things, story-telling. The task of fiction is to achieve is, by the power of the written word, a glimpse of truth that we didn't necessarily know was available to us. Part of Carey's genius is his ability to allow the reader to become the instigator of ideas. Parrot and Olivier in America is a fantastic riff on the servant/master relationship that can relate to Tocqueville, or to Hegel, or to Nietzsche’s "master morality," or indeed to the inanities of the Bush generation. Carey is well aware of the looking glass of history. Carey is here by being there. Whoever we are is whoever we have been. To label his work as "historical fiction" is to reduce the impact of what it means, and allows. He has his finger on the pulse. But not only that--he has shaped the vigorous graph of the beats.

I recall my first foray into the Carey world. It was back in the early 80's and I picked up a book called Bliss. Harry Joy's heart attack on his front lawn was my own in literature: it resuscitated me. From there I stepped into the lives of Oscar and Lucinda and then Jack Maggs. One of the greatest novels of the 20th century is The True History of the Kelly Gang which came in 2001 and is, without a doubt, an "adjectival" masterpiece. (I’m going to carry that book with me – along with DeLillo’s Underworld and Ondaatje’s Coming through Slaughter--to the gates of heaven or hell, whichever one will have me.) Recently Carey has written My Life as a Fake, Theft and His Illegal Self, all tours de force. What I love about his work is that it’s smart and funny at the same time. It’s always an adventure to read. I get transported out of myself, into a new world. The reader is allowed the dignity of exploration. It’s a form of travel, a manner of being away and remaining at home. I happen now to have the pleasure of teaching with Peter Carey at Hunter College in New York–-in fact, one of the reasons I’m at Hunter is that I wanted to teach alongside him, to shape my writing and reading, and to learn from him. I do so every time I read a book of his. He’s a master storyteller and a servant of language at the same time: he exists in that landscape with humility and grace. Parrot and Olivier in America is Peter Carey at his best: funny and tender and true.

(Photo © Matt Valentine)

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The eminently talented Carey (Theft) has the gift of engaging ventriloquism, and having already channeled the voices of Dickens's Jack Maggs and the Australian folk hero/master thief Ned Kelly, he now inhabits Olivier-Jean-Baptist de Clarel de Barfleur, a fictionalized version of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose noble parents are aghast at his involvement in the events surrounding Napoleon's return and the reigns of Louis XVIII and Charles X. To remove him from danger, they send him to America, where priggish snob Olivier inspires Carey's humor during his self-centered adventures in New York, New England, and Philadelphia. Olivier can't shake his aristocratic disdain of raw-mannered, money-obsessed Americans—until he falls for a Connecticut beauty. More lovable is Parrot, aka John Larrit, who survives Australia's penal colony only to be pressed into traveling with Olivier as servant and secret spy for Olivier's mother. Though their relationship begins in mutual hatred, it evolves into affectionate comradeship as they experience the alien social and cultural milieus of the New World. Richly atmospheric, this wonderful novel is picaresque and Dickensian, with humor and insight injected into an accurately rendered period of French and American history. (Apr.)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (April 20, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307592626
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307592620
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (122 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,021,976 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By David Keymer TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 30, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This exceptionally well written and consistently enjoyable novel succeeds both as a novel of manners and a novel of ideas. It's an extended riff on Tocqueville -not that Carey, an author of great discernment, has done anything so crude as to fictionalize Tocqueville's and his friend and associate Beaumont's epoch-making journey to America in 1831, a journey that resulted in the most insightful book about that young republic ever to appear, a book that is still a treasure hoard of insights into our country's mores and foibles even today. No! Rather Carey has created two comic but intensely, consistently human characters, and let them roam over our young country while he marks down their reactions to what they encounter.

Olivier is Olivier Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur, born to a centuries-old family of the high nobility in France. Unfortunately, it is a France that no longer exists, and Olivier's loyalty to the new state is suspect. It is safer, more circumspect, for O. to disappear for a while. A fact-finding expedition to the United States, to examine New World prison systems, offers the perfect excuse. O.'s mama' is worried, though. She doesn't want her darling little boy to fall prey to some New World harpy. Parrot -Perroquet -is dragooned into going along as Olivier's secretary and servant, and as O's mother's spy on her son. Parrot is English, and no aristocrat -no, far from it! He knows his birth name -John Larrit--but isn't certain when or where he was born. His father, an itinerant printer who is eventually transported for forgery, quoted Rousseau to his son very early and Parrot starts the journey with nothing but disdain for his noble master.
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Format: Paperback
Peter Carey has always been a master at the unreliable narrator and in Parrot and Olivier we are treated to two of the them, alternating chapters and versions of the truth. Olivier is a spoilt young French aristocrat who is sent abroad to save his skin at the time of the 1830 revolution. His unwilling servant is Parrot who has far more practical commonsense than his master but has been sorely abused by dubious French aristocrats before. Both of the damaged heroes are searching for love and respect and to varying degrees they find it, though in both cases their long term happiness is in doubt. At least one of our narrators has a genuine historical counterpart, and other characters we meet have a passing resemblance to real people. However, Carey, as usual, has his way of subverting history, while at the same time he raising issues about the relationship between the New and Old Worlds, and the ways that they are governed . Don't expect Henry James, do expect Peter Carey on top form.
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I haven't read many of Peter Carey's books, but have enjoyed tremendously those I have. "Jack Maggs" was a clever, pitch-perfect reworking of Dickens' "Great Expectations," and "True History of the Kelly Gang," for which he won his second Booker Prize, brilliantly chronicled the life of Australia's Billy the Kid. I was so looking forward to his take on post-Revolutionary France and America, confident that it would be a colorful, evocative ride. And while the novel certainly evoked the early 1800s in meticulous and rich detail, it was also a dense, overly written bore. I simply could not get into this book, no matter how hard I tried. Carey's inspiration, Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America," obviously means a great deal to him, but he didn't find a way to successfully share the "why" of that with this reader. In his acknowledgements he writes that the piece "may not suit everyone," and that his personal reading list -- which he used, in part, as research, and is available on his web site -- may be "interesting to literary mechanics and other specialists [but] absolutely no use to anyone else." And therein lies the problem, I think, with "Parrot and Olivier...": it's an exercise rather than a story, a literary hat trick rather than an engaging entertainment. But as this and "C," another book I couldn't fathom, were both short-listed for this year's Booker, perhaps I'm just a literary nitwit. Regardless, if today's "literature" is this impenetrable and dull, I want no part of it.
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Olivier de Garmont, a 25 year-old French nobleman whose grandfather was guillotined during the 1789 revolution, is drugged by the Marquis de Tilbot, a close friend of Olivier's monarchist mother, and shanghaied to America. There, he is safe from the excesses of the 1830 July Revolution while he works as representative of the French government, investigating the American penal system. At the same time, Parrot, Tilbot's servant, agrees to accompany Olivier to America, where he is supposed to function as Olivier's protector and secretary, as well as a spy for his hovering mother. In PARROT AND OLIVIER IN AMERICA (PaOiA), Peter Carey examines how opportunity and democracy in Jacksonian America affect the cultured and charmingly observant Olivier and the capable Parrot, who is the equivalent of the modern-day personal assistant.

Peter Carey has based Olivier on Alexis de Tocqueville. In fact, Carey emphasizes on his website that he has threaded Olivier's commentary with excerpts from "Democracy in America," de Tocqueville's masterpiece. Olivier is a great character. He is a French aristocrat, fleeing democracy in his own country but fascinated by its operation in America; a highly cultured Frenchman, who is sometimes hilariously snobbish about American culture and cooking; and a young bachelor who falls in love with Amelia, a natural aristocrat and the daughter of a wealthy Connecticut farmer. Ultimately, Olivier must decide: Can a man with his background and values assimilate in democratic America?

Meanwhile, Parrot, whose real name is John Larritt, arrives in America without a good working relationship with Olivier, his boss. In his long association with Tilbot, Larritt has become skilled in art appraisal and the art business.
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