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Paperback Parrot and Olivier in America Book

ISBN: 0307476014

ISBN13: 9780307476012

Parrot and Olivier in America

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Man Booker Prize Finalist National Book Award Finalist Two-time Booker Prize-winner Peter Carey's latest feat of imagination is an irrepressible, audacious, and trenchantly funny novel set mostly in nineteenth-century America. Olivier--an improvisation on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville--is an aristocrat born just after the French Revolution. Parrot is the motherless son of an itinerant English engraver. Their lives are joined when Olivier sets...

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

`I had not known America would be like this.'

The novel opens in France where sickly, sensitive Olivier de Garmont and the remnants of his aristocratic family have survived the Revolution and the Terror of 1793, and are surviving the Bonaparte regime in their chateau in Normandy. The restoration of the monarchy brings no joy to Olivier's family, and his family decides to send him to America - ostensibly to study prison reform. Parrot, considerably older than Olivier, is the son of an itinerant English printer. Olivier and Parrot are brought together by the mysterious one-armed Marquis de Tilbot whose presence looms large across the novel. When Olivier sets sail for America, Parrot accompanies him as both protector and spy. The narrative shifts between the perspectives of Parrot and Olivier, covering both their adventures together and their separate lives. This enables the introduction and exploration of a number of different themes in the novel: including love, politics and ambition. I especially enjoyed the differing views of democracy: `In a democracy, it seemed, one could not go against a servant's will.' (Olivier) `I read Tom Paine by candlelight, but for 18 hours a day I was a vassal.' (Parrot) Olivier is trapped by his past, caught between his aristocratic past and a brash new world where equality means dealing with people of different classes and station in life as though they are equals. Olivier is never really comfortable in America, although when he falls in love with an American heiress he sees some possibilities. Parrot, on the other hand, has already experienced much in his life and is more flexible in his approach to opportunities. It is Parrot's narrative that particularly enriches the story because it enlarges the world beyond that of the myopic Olivier. The novel may have been inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville's travels through America, but there is more than one story in this novel. Parrot's life has been far more varied and he is, it seems, far better equipped to survive in the New World. I am tempted to write more about this novel: it's vibrant, energetic and vastly entertaining. But for me, a lot of the pleasure was derived from reading the novel without knowing what was likely to happen next, and I don't wish to spoil this for others. Read it for pleasure, dissect it for significant themes if you so choose. But if you do choose to explore those themes then you may need to reread the novel - or read it at a far more leisurely pace than I did. `Who would have imagined such an extraordinary world?' Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in 1831-33, ostensibly to examine the prison system, but his observations of the young nations were more generally perceptive, as published in his DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA of 1835. Australian novelist Peter Carey, who has lived in America for twenty years, has reimagined Tocqueville under a thin disguise as Olivier de Garmont, the sickly offspring of an ancient Norman family, some guillotined in the Revolution, some spared, now finding himself an anachronism in his own country. Carey is excellent at portraying the political situation in a France where liberty steered a precarious path between tyrannies on either side. Olivier arrives in an America of paradox, on the one hand feted for his old-world position, and glad-handed on the other by people he could previously have dismissed as servants or tradesmen. He falls in love with the country (and with a beautiful American heiress), but his love alternates with bewilderment and even dislike. Olivier is interesting in a sort of academic way, but Carey's masterstroke is to pair him with an English traveling companion several decades his senior, known as Parrot. The son of an itinerant printer in Devon, Parrot's life takes a new turn when he meets "Monsieur," a one-armed renegade French aristocrat who crops up throughout the novel as a diabolus ex machina, and is ultimately responsible for bringing Parrot and Olivier together. Transported to Australia (though not as a convict) the teenage lad learns to fend for himself, building some skill as an artist. Eventually, he is brought back to France by Monsieur, and used by him in a variety of shady dealings. He also falls for a fiery female painter named Mathilde, tossing like a towed dinghy in the wake of her genius. Whenever Parrot is the narrator, the language comes violently to life. Here is Mathilde's mother on her arrival in America "...wrestling with the rolled-up canvas, clanking and clattering with those beaten blackened pans she had carried like gold napoleons across the sea. With a nod and nudge she made it clear my only job was to hold her sobbing daughter and my heart was brimming, one part rage, one cockalorum, all sloshing and gurgling and spurting through my chambers." Those who have read TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG know well what Carey can do in this vein. Olivier has known only one life before coming to America; Parrot has lived through several lifetimes, and looks only to stop travelling, settle down, and discover what he really is. America provides that for him, as it so often does. As a European immigrant myself, I find it uncanny how well Carey has captured one's love/hate relationship with this country -- including the incredulity of most Americans that this could be anything other than total love. I am also struck by the way in which, by setting the genteel breeding of Olivier against the rough practicality of Parrot, he once more touches upon a central duality in Australian literature (it is th


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. Over time they become more than friends, in a friendship between two men who could not be more different -in their looks, dress, sensibilities and affections, and prejudices. Although Olivier tries to admire America -at one point, he even proposes marriage to an American beauty--he cannot shake his disdain of men's commonness in this raw country and he is fearful of what America will become in little time. For Parrot, America offers a new beginning: his dreadful past counts for nothing in this grand open land. And that is one of the many excellences of this truly exceptional popular novel: Carey uses his two narrators, O. and P., to voice disparate and sometimes conflicting views of the New World, and he doesn't load the case for one view or the other. Because what both men say about the new country they are observing is true: Andrew Jackson's America is raw; money rules all; only the thinnest veneer of culture exists even in the highest ranks of society; and on and on the observations go. Americans then, as now, were a problematic people, hard to encapsulate in one simple truism. Carey, who has won two Booker Prizes in the past, is a consummate word worker. The descriptions in this book are apt and powerful. The captain of the ship that carries O. and P. to the States "was as hard a

A nostalgic view of the way we (in the USA) were

In this warm, captivating, and accessible new novel, Carey returns to the epic sweep found in his Booker Prize winning works, "Oscar and Lucinda", and "True History of the Kelly Gang". The two protagonists, a young French aristocrat and an older, artistic, lower-class British cynic, are also the twin narrators, telling a single tale through alternating first-person chapters. Loosely modeled on de Tocqueville's enthusiastic descriptions of his travels through early America, this story advances across turn of the (19th) Century England, France, Australia and the U.S. The insolent Parrot and self-assured Olivier insightfully describe historical events and settings with Carey's trademark attention to detail, revealing humorous subtleties that most historians tend to leave out. Their contrasting personalities react differently to the American experiment, but both are moved by its bold novelty and optimism. Other readers may share my sense of regret in looking back, through these characters' nearly 200-year-old European eyes, at the promise of what the Founding Fathers created here, and how we've lately squandered it. The world no longer looks to the United States with the same kind of anticipatory excitement that Olivier and Parrot expressed about our country's early, unformed days; to recreate that feeling, one probably needs to travel to China or Brazil, where economics, technology, and culture are similarly racing into unexplored territory, with as yet unrealized promises of greatness. The book will not be released in the U.S. until April 20, 2010 (I picked up a copy in the Sydney Airport).

Unreliable narrators

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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