Parrot and Olivier in America [NOOK Book]

Overview

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 ...
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Parrot and Olivier in America

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Overview

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 this superlative writer.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Thomas Mallon
Sentence for sentence, Carey's writing remains matchlessly robust.
—The New York Times
Ron Charles
Tocqueville, recast here in garish tones as Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont, strolls out of his famous Democracy in America and into the pages of this kaleidoscopic story along with the whole grasping, bragging, bargaining cast of our ravenous nation. It's another feat of acrobatic ventriloquism, joining Carey's masterpieces, Jack Maggs, which pulled on a loose thread in Dickens's Great Expectations, and True History of the Kelly Gang, which blasted through the life of a legendary Australian outlaw.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
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.)
Library Journal
Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont is French nobility, son of survivors of the French Revolution. Olivier has had every privilege and is acutely aware of his relative social position. Imagine his surprise and discomfort when he is banished, for his own safety, to newly emerging democratic America. Son of an itinerant English printer, with a colorful and varied past, Parrot proves an unlikely companion. Parrot is sent to accompany Olivier as his servant and secretary, with the secret mission of reporting Olivier's activities back to his mother in France. The story alternates between Parrot and Olivier, who narrate from their widely different points of view. Featuring well-developed and multifaceted characters (the novel was inspired by the life of Alexis de Tocqueville), this book is rife with humorous details and turns of phrase, and the language is sophisticated (readers might want to have a dictionary handy). VERDICT Written by a two-time Booker Prize winner, this engaging book will be particularly appreciated by readers interested in early 19th-century American history, the French aristocracy, and emerging democracy. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/09.]—Sarah Conrad Weisman, Corning Community Coll. Lib., NY
Kirkus Reviews
A New World historical novel from Carey, the two-time Australian-born winner of the Man Booker prize. We start in the Old World. When the nobleman Olivier de Garmont is born in 1805, post-revolutionary France is still volatile. Olivier lost a grandfather to the guillotine. His parents remain in exile until the Bourbon Restoration. Olivier's liberal sentiments endanger him during the next revolution (July 1830), and his ultra-royalist mother decides he should be sent out of harm's way, to America. She acts through her confidant, the one-armed Marquis de Tilbot, and his middle-aged servant, known as Parrot, a most undeferential Englishman. Parrot's story: As a boy in England, he was rescued by de Tilbot after his father's wrongful arrest for forging banknotes, sent to Australia where he married and had a child, then was plucked away again by the Marquis. (All this dribbles out in flashbacks.) Olivier is drugged and put aboard a vessel to New York, together with Parrot. Now the nobleman has transplantation in common with his thrice-uprooted new servant. His cover story in America will be that he is investigating their prison system, as did another French nobleman, Alexis de Tocqueville, the inspiration for this novel. Carey's nobleman is a playful distortion of de Tocqueville, for Olivier is a nincompoop, myopic both literally and figuratively, with zero interest in prisons and slow to realize the resourcefulness of his savvy Parrot. Carey exploits this comic material only fitfully, though he cooks up some adventures for the odd couple and a romance for Olivier, who falls for the daughter of a Connecticut landowner ("I had arrived, quite unexpectedly, in Paradise.") Their starry-eyedcourtship distracts attention from a more interesting development: the budding friendship between the principals ("in a democracy . . . both parties know that the servant may at any moment become the master"). Quirky and erudite, but the payoff in human-interest terms is meager. First printing of 100,000
Publishers Weekly
Carey's fictionalization of Alexis de Tocqueville's trip to America that inspired Tocqueville's study Democracy in America makes for lively listening. As the arrogant Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont--a nobleman (and Tocqueville stand-in) sent abroad by his parents who are scandalized by his political involvement--and Parrot, his Australian manservant (and a secret spy), arrive in the New World, Humphrey Bower dexterously juggles American, British, and French accents and keeps each characters distinct and multidimensional. He glides Parrot and Olivier's wild mood and opinion swings and makes romantic passages light and moving. A Knopf hardcover (Reviews, Nov. 9). (Apr.)
From the Publisher
“Carey has twice won the Man Booker Prize and by all rights should be nominated for a third for Parrot and Olivier in America, a novel as big and bold as the country itself. This work showcases Carey at his finest, bringing together all his considerable strengths and obsessions . . . Carey [is] a sheer magician with language . . . He delivers a riot of unexpected plot twists and pleasures . . . An utter tour de force . . . Columbus might have discovered America, but with this new novel, Carey gives us the thrill of discovering his adopted home—our adopted home—all over again.”
Miami Herald

“Another feat of acrobatic ventriloquism, joining Carey’s masterpieces, Jack Maggs and True History of the Kelly Gang . . . Carey’s most marvelous invention is Tocqueville’s traveling companion, Parrot . . . It’s a brilliant alteration of history and a source of rich comedy . . . Outrageous and witty.” 
 —Ron Charles, Washington Post
 
Parrot and Olivier is amusing and wise and graceful to a degree that we almost don’t deserve.”
—Laura Miller, Salon
 
“Peter Carey re-imagines Alexis de Tocqueville’s American journey with a verve that is nothing short of captivating. Parrot and Olivier is a rollicking debate about America and its opportunities, its society and class distinctions. Carey’s characters and landscapes breathe, resulting in a work that one hates to see come to an end . . . It is one timely work of historical fiction.”
Denver Post
 
“Carey is as various, often as brilliant, and always as irreverent as they come . . . Mischievous but with a serious underlay.”
Richard Eder, Boston Globe
 
“Carey braids his story carefully, lovingly. It has all his telltale favorite elements—lawlessness, revolution, hope for the future, men driven by passion. At its heart, Parrot and Olivier is a western; the simplest story in history, sculpted down to a twinkle in a philosopher's eye: Man’s search for freedom.”
Los Angeles Times

“Sentence for sentence, Carey’s writing remains matchlessly robust.”
—New York Times Book Review

This is an exuberant, entertaining, incisive novel, full of attitude and incident, about ‘the great lava flow of democracy’ . . . My favorite Peter Carey book has been Jack Maggs. Now, with his bracing and often hilarious new novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, my favorite has a rival.”
Dallas Morning News
 
“This masterful novel manages to be focused and intimate . . . The entertaining friction between his two alternating narrators that make this one of Carey’s best.”
Time Out New York

“Peter Carey is a wily seducer, a mental acrobat who can bound across continents and centuries and make us believe in whatever world he has discovered and imagined. Parrot and Olivier transports us to the rough-and-tumble America of 1830, and it’s possibly the most charming and engaging novel this demon of a story-teller has yet written. His prose has never been more buoyant, more vigorous, more musical. Open this book and listen to Peter Carey sing.”  
 —Paul Auster
 
“Peter Carey’s latest imaginative and commanding tale [is] a thrillingly fresh and incisive drama of extraordinary personalities set during a time of world-altering vision and action . . . His transfixing novels are at once sharply funny and profoundly resonant . . . Brilliant.”
 —Donna Seaman, Booklist, starred
 
“I have been reading with astonishment and envy Parrot and Olivier in America . . . Carey is a writer I prize not only for his remarkable Dickensian plots but also for the brilliance of his style . . . He is the most exuberant stylist at work in English today.”
 —Edmund White, Daily Telegraph (UK)
 
“One of those comic masterpieces that seems effortless while making you realize that Carey writes some of the best sentences in English.”
 —Tom Sleigh, New Yorker .com

The Barnes & Noble Review

Peter Carey's eleventh novel, an "improvisation" on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, offers no serious revelations about that nineteenth-century French aristocrat's views on democracy in America, and for that we should be grateful. What a crashing bore that would be. Instead of a novel of ideas, Parrot and Olivier in America is a big, trippy, often strangely beautiful novel of observations, with proper focus on the interplay between the two self-absorbed personalities doing the observing.

Carey is a two-time Booker Prize-winning Australian writer who's lived in America for twenty years, and while many of his novels feature characters torn between two countries -- most notably Jack Maggs and Oscar and Lucinda -- his latest book expands that displacement, ranging extravagantly over early nineteenth-century England, France, Australia, and America. Carey's two fugitives here are the 26-year-old nobleman Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont (to be loosely confused with the real-life Comte Alexis-Charles-Henri-Maurice Clérel de Tocqueville) and his fiftyish English valet, John "Parrot" Larrit.

What yokes this most unwilling master and servant, each of whom instantly detests the other, is the authority of the Marquis de Tilbot, a formidable presence in both their lives. "Big and ruddy as a side of beef," and operating without the benefit of his left arm ("presumably sliced away by some horrid machine"), Tilbot is a dear friend of Olivier's mother, the staunchly royalist Comtesse de Garmont, who reveres Tilbot for his heroic leadership in a peasant uprising against the Revolution back in 1793. Semi-retired now in 1831 but still an enthusiastic meddler, the Marquis expresses concern for Olivier's safety during the precarious early days of the July Monarchy, and advises the Comtesse, who's still reeling from revolutionary post-traumatic stress, to send the young man to America.

Asthmatic, headachy, and prone to nosebleeds, Olivier is less than delighted about this voyage, during which he is ostensibly to make a study of American prisons. He's unhappier still with the forced loan of Tilbot's longtime servant Parrot -- a "common clown" with a gift for both mimicry and illustration whom Tilbot engages to serve as Olivier's secretary but also to report secretly on his whereabouts to Olivier's anxious maman.

For his part, Parrot is even crankier about his compulsory journey to America in the service of the effete little aristocrat whom he dubs Lord Migraine. His complex history with the Marquis, his "frightening benefactor," which spans decades and continents and unfolds gradually throughout the narrative, has caused in him an aversion to wandering. Coerced by Tilbot to abandon one household after another in England, Australia, and France, middle-aged Parrot now wants only to be settled, and to pursue his dreams of working as an artist alongside his current amour, a comely French painter called Mathilde.

This is only Carey's set-up, yet already he's developing his intention to blend the cinematic with the picaresque: it's a fish-out-of-water and a buddy story, with un poco Quixote, a dash of Jeeves and Wooster, and a soupçon, naturally, of Tocqueville, some of whose biographical dates and details here are faithful. (Parrot, though, is entirely Carey's invention.)

During the course of their American sojourn, these two will take turns being dazzled, appalled, bored, and moved beyond imagining by the rough-hewn, dizzyingly alien democratic panorama, which includes pig stampedes in New York's Hudson Square; nascent displays of housing foreclosures, insurance fraud, and art-market inflation; "the American autumn, in all its drunken wildness"; and the fidgety push of buyers and sellers on Broadway, who "banged against one another like marbles in a lottery barrel." The pair will bicker, separate, reunite, rescue each other, and, because everything is possible in the land of the free, they'll occasionally exchange roles as master and servant.

It's in this fluidity that Carey's novel reaches for something a bit deeper than mere entertainment. While Olivier and Parrot are both prisoners of their stations and their pasts, and agree about virtually nothing, they do manage to loosen into sympathy for each other. "A person like my servant was a foreign land," admits Olivier, "so although I might very sincerely wish to imagine him, how might I begin?" First, by acknowledging that both were traumatized children: Olivier grew up bedeviled by the specter of the Revolution, in which many of his relatives, and very nearly his parents, had their heads shorn by the guillotine; Parrot was torn away from his father, an itinerant Dartmoor printer with radical leanings, to be indentured to the sinister Marquis. And second, by their mutual recognition that "the great lava flow of democracy," with all its vulgarity and potential misuse, is civilization's best way forward. In the New World, Parrot might never quite attain liberty, and Olivier might always distrust equality, yet by believing in America's possibilities they lurch toward an unlikely fraternity.

But don't mistake this fuzzy sentimentality for an attempt at conventional novelistic tidiness. Although several reviewers have already called Carey's book Dickensian -- as so many long, vaguely antic novels are inevitably mislabeled -- its slyly off-kilter, hallucinatory sensibility places it more accurately in the picaresque postmodern tradition, hacked from the same big lumber as Thomas Pynchon's Mason and Dixon or Stephen Wright's The Amalgamation Polka. And there is also, unmistakably, an inflection here of Australia, whose often-lethal landscapes and haunted colonial past have generated the extreme fiction, also frequently hallucinatory, of writers like Patrick White, Janette Turner Hospital, and David Malouf.

That an Australian novelist who now lives in New York might be drawn to Tocqueville is hardly a surprise. In fact, it would be tough to find an American with a generally sunny view of democracy who doesn't claim to love Tocqueville -- including those, like Carey, who have actually bothered to read him. What's more surprising is the fact that Parrot and Olivier in America manages to be a successful novel without truly being about Tocqueville, or America, at all. Vibrant and accessible, funny and often quite stirring, it only makes sense within the confines of its own loopy universe; yet the world it creates is gratifying. In creating characters that are both lifelike and original, Carey proves that, while a novel's jurisdiction is unlimited, its allegiance is only and always to itself.

--Donna Rifkind

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307593016
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/20/2010
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 265,462
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Peter Carey
Peter Carey is the author of ten previous novels and has twice received the Booker Prize. His other honors include the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Born in Australia, he has lived in New York City for twenty years.

Biography

"My fictional project has always been the invention or discovery of my own country," the prizewinning Australian author Peter Carey has said. This postcolonial undertaking has sometimes led Carey to wrestle with the great works of English literature: The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994) draws on Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, while in Jack Maggs (1997), a version of Dickens's Great Expectations, is told from the perspective of the convict who returns to England from Australia.

But although Carey went to what he calls "a particularly posh" Australian boarding school, he claims he didn't discover literature until he was out of school. He studied chemistry at Monash University for just a year before leaving to work in advertising. There, surrounded by readers and would-be writers, he discovered the great literature of the 20th century, including authors like Joyce, Faulkner and Beckett. "To read Faulkner for the first time was for me like discovering another planet," Carey said in an interview with The Guardian. "The pleasure of that language, the politics of giving voice to the voiceless."

Publishers rejected Carey's first three novels, so he began writing short stories. These, he later said, "felt like the first authentic things I had done." He was still working for an advertising agency when his first collection of short stories appeared in 1973, and he kept the part-time job after moving to an "alternative community" in Queensland. His first published novel, Bliss (1981), won a prestigious Australian literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award. The book is about an advertising executive who has a near-death experience and ends up living in a rural commune.

Carey's later novels ranged farther outside the bounds of his own experience, but he continued to develop his concern with Australian identity. 1988's Oscar and Lucinda, which tells the story of a colonial Australian heiress and her ill-fated love for an English clergyman, won the Booker Prize and helped establish Carey as one of the literary heavyweights of his generation. He won another Booker Prize for True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), the story of a notorious 19th-century outlaw whose legacy still shapes Australia's consciousness.

Though Carey now lives and teaches in New York City, his home country and its past still possess his imagination. ''History,'' he writes, ''is like a bloodstain that keeps on showing on the wall no matter how many new owners take possession, no matter how many times we paint over it.''

Good To Know

Peter Carey and J. M. Coetzee are the only two-time Booker Prize winners to date.

Carey caused a stir in the British press when he declined an invitation to meet Queen Elizabeth II. The royal invitation is extended to all winners of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, which Carey received in 1998 for Jack Maggs. He did meet the Queen after he won the award a second time, for True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001.

Fans of Carey's work know that in 1997, Oscar and Lucinda was made into a critically acclaimed movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett. But they may not know that Carey wrote the screenplay for the critically panned Wim Wenders film Until the End of the World (1991) as well as the screenplay adaptation of his own novel, Bliss (1991).

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    1. Also Known As:
      Peter Philip Carey
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 7, 1943
    2. Place of Birth:
      Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia
    1. Education:
      Monash University (no degree)
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Olivier

i

I had no doubt that something cruel and catastrophic had happened before I was even born, yet the comte and comtesse, my parents, would not tell me what it was. As a result my organ of curiosity was made irritable and I grew into the most restless and unhealthy creature imaginable—slight, pale, always climbing, prying into every drain and attic of the Château de Barfleur.

But consider this: Given the ferocity of my investigations, is it not half queer I did not come across my uncle’s célérifère?

Perhaps the célérifère was common knowledge in your own family. In mine it was, like everything, a mystery. This clumsy wooden bicycle, constructed by my uncle Astolphe de Barfleur, was only brought to light when a pair of itinerant slaters glimpsed it strapped to the rafters. Why it should be strapped, I do not know, nor can I imagine why my uncle—for I assume it was he—had used two leather dog collars to do the job. It is my nature to imagine a tragedy—that loyal pets have died for instance—but perhaps the dog collars were simply what my uncle had at hand. In any case, it was typical of the riddles trapped inside the Château de Berfleur. At least it was not me who found it and it makes my pulse race, even now, to imagine how my mother might have reacted if I had. Her upsets were never predictable. As for her maternal passions, these were not conventionally expressed, although I relished those occasions, by no means infrequent, when she feared that I would die. It is recorded that, in the year of 1809, she called the doctor on fifty-three occasions. Twenty years later she would still be taking the most outlandish steps to save my life.

...



My childhood was neither blessed nor tainted by the célérifère, and I would not have mentioned it at all, except—here it is before us now.



Typically, the Austrian draftsman fails to suggest the three dimensions.

However:

Could there be a vehicle more appropriate for the task I have so recklessly set myself, one that you, by-the-by, have supported by taking this volume in your hands? That is, you have agreed to be transported to my childhood where it will be proven, or if not proven then strongly suggested, that the very shape of my head, my particular phrenology, the volume of my lungs, was determined by unknown pressures brought to bear in the years before my birth.

So let us believe that a grotesque and antique bicycle has been made available to us, its wooden frame in the form of a horse, and of course if we are to approach my home this way, we must be prepared to push my uncle’s hobby across fallen branches, through the spinneys. It is almost useless in the rough ground of the woods, where I and the Abbé de La Londe, my beloved Bébé, shot so many hundreds of larks and sparrows that I bruised my little shoulder blue.

“Careful Olivier dear, do be careful.”

We can ignore nose bleeding for the time being, although to be realistic the blood can be anticipated soon enough—spectacular spurts, splendid gushes—my body being always too thin-walled a container for the passions coursing through its veins, but as we are making up our adventure let us assume there is no blood, no compresses, no leeches, no wild gallops to drag the doctor from his breakfast.

And so we readers can leave the silky treacherous Seine and cross the rough woodlands and enter the path between the linden trees, and I, Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, a noble of Myopia, am free to speed like Mercury while pointing out the blurry vegetable garden on the left, the smudgy watercolor of orchard on the right. Here is the ordure of the village road across which I can go sailing, skidding, blind as a bat, through the open gates of the Château de Barfleur.

Hello Jacques, hello Gustave, Odile. I am home.

On the right, just inside, is Papa’s courthouse where he conducts the marriages of young peasants, thus saving them military service and early death in Napoleon’s army. It does not need to be said that we are not for Bonaparte, and my papa leaves the intrigues for others. We live a quiet life—he says. In Normandy, in exile, he also says. My mother says the same thing, but more bitterly. Only in our architecture might you glimpse signs of the powerful familial trauma. We live a quiet life, but our courtyard resembles a battlefield, its ancient austerity insulted by a sea of trenches, fortifications, red mud, white sand, gray flagstones, and fifty-four forsythias with their roots bound up in balls of hessian. In order that the courtyard should reach its proper glory, the Austrian architect has been installed in the Blue Room with his drawing boards and pencils. You may glimpse this uppity creature as we pass.

I have omitted mention of the most serious defect of my uncle’s vehicle—the lack of steering. There are more faults besides, but who could really care? The two-wheeled célérifère was one of those dazzling machines that are initially mocked for their impracticality until, all in a great rush, like an Italian footman falling down a staircase, they arrive in front of us, unavoidably real and extraordinarily useful.

The years before 1805, when I was first delivered to my mother’s breast, constituted an age of inventions of great beauty and great terror—and I was very soon aware of all of this without knowing exactly what the beauty or the terror were. What I understood was drawn solely from what we call the symbolic aggregate: that is, the confluence of the secrets, the disturbing flavor of my mother’s milk, my own breathing, the truly horrible and unrelenting lowing of the condemned cattle which, particularly on winter afternoons, at that hour when the servants have once more failed to light the lanterns, distressed me beyond belief.

But hundreds of words have been spent and it is surely time to enter that château, rolling quietly on our two wheels between two tall blue doors where, having turned sharply right, we shall be catapulted along the entire length of the long high gallery, traveling so fast that we will be shrieking and will have just sufficient time to notice, on the left, the conceited architect and his slender fair-haired assistant. On the right—look quickly—are six high windows, each presenting the unsettling turmoil of the courtyard, and the gates, outside which the peasants and their beasts are constantly dropping straw and fecal matter.

You might also observe, between each window, a portrait of a Garmont or a Barfleur or a Clarel, a line which stretches so far back in time that should my father, in the darkest days of the Revolution, have attempted to burn all the letters and documents that would have linked him irrevocably to these noble privileges and perils, he would have seen his papers rise from the courtyard bonfire still alive, four hundred years of history become like burning crows, lifted by wings of flame, a plague of them, rising into a cold turquoise sky I was not born to see.

But today is bright and sunny. The long gallery is a racetrack, paved with marble, and we swish toward that low dark door, the little oratory where Maman often spends her mornings praying.

But my mother is not praying, so we must carry our machine to visit her. That anyone would choose oak for such a device beggars belief, but my uncle was clearly an artist of a type. Now on these endless stairs I feel the slow drag of my breath like a rat-tail file inside my throat. This is no fun, sir, but do not be alarmed. I might be a slight boy with sloping shoulders and fine arms, but my blood is cold and strong, and I will swim a river and shoot a bird and carry the célérifère to the second floor where I will present to you the cloaked blindfolded figure on the chaise, my mother, the Comtesse de Garmont.

Poor Maman. See how she suffers, her face gaunt, glowing in the gloom. In her youth she was never ill. In Paris she was a beauty, but Paris has been taken from her. She has her own grand house on the rue Saint-Dominique, but my father is a cautious man and we are in exile in the country. My mother is in mourning for Paris, although sometimes you might imagine her a penitent. Has she sinned? Who would tell me if she had? Her clothes are both somber and loose-fitting as is appropriate for a religious woman. Her life is a kind of holy suffering existing on a plane above her disappointing child.

I also am sick, but it is in no sense the same. I am, as I often declare myself, a wretched beast.

Behold, the dreadful little creature—his head under a towel, engulfed in steam, and the good Bébé, who was as often my nurse as my tutor and confessor, sitting patiently at my side, his big hand on my narrow back while I gasped for life so long and hard that I would—still in the throes of crisis—fall asleep and wake with my nose scalded in the basin, my lungs like fish in a pail, grasping what they could.

After how many choking nights was I still awake to witness the pale light of dawn lifting the dew-wet poplar leaves from the inky waters of the night, to hear the cawing of the crows, the antic gargoyle torments of country life?

I knew I would be cured in Paris. In Paris I would be happy.

It was the Abbé de La Londe’s contrary opinion that Paris was a pit of vile miasmas and that the country air was good for me. He should have had me at my Catullus and my Cicero but instead he would drag me, muskets at the ready, into what we called the Bottom Hundred where we would occupy ourselves shooting doves and thrush, and Bébé would play beater and groundsman and priest. “You’re a splendid little marksman,” Bébé would say, jogging to collect our plunder. “Quam sagaciter puer telum conicit!” I translated. He never learned I was shortsighted. I so wished to please him I shot things I could not see.

My mother would wish me to address him as vous and l’Abbé, but such was his character that he would be Bébé until the day he died.

I was a strange small creature for him to love. He was a strong and handsome man, with snow-white hair and shrewd eyes easily moved to sympathy. He had raised my father and now I trusted myself entire to him, his big liver-spotted hands, his patient manner, the smell of Virginian tobacco which stained the shoulder of his cassock, and filled me with the atoms of America twenty years before I breathed its air. “Come young man,” he would say. “Come, it’s a beautiful day—Decorus est dies.” And the hail would be likely flailing your back raw and he would marvel, not at the cruel pummeling, but at the miracle of ice. Or if not the ice, then the wind—blowing so violently it seemed the North Sea itself was pushing up the Seine and would wash away the wall that separated the river from the bain.

The meek would not swim, but Bébé made sure I was not meek. He would be splashing in the deep end of the bain, naked as a broken statue—“Come on Great Olivier.”

If I became—against all that God intended for me—a powerful swimmer, it was not because of the damaging teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but because of this good priest and my desire to please him. I would do anything for him, even drown myself. It was because of him that I was continually drawn away from the awful atmosphere of my childhood home, and if I spent too many nights in the company of doctors and leeches, I knew, in spite of myself, the sensual pleasures of the seasons, the good red dirt drying out my tender hands.

And of course I exaggerate. I lived at the Château de Barfleur for sixteen years and my mother was not always to be found lying in her pigeonhole with the wet sheet across her eyes. There was, above my father’s locked desk, a large and lovely pencil portrait of my maman, as light as the dream of a child that was never to be born. Her nose here was perhaps a little too narrow, a trifle severe, but there was such true vitality in the likeness. She showed a clear forehead, a frank expression, inquiring eyes that directly engaged the viewer, and not only here, but elsewhere—for there would be many nights in my childhood when she would rise up from her bed, dress herself in all her loveliness, and welcome our old friends, not those so recently and swiftly elevated, but nobles of the robe and sword. To stand in the courtyard on these evenings with all the grand coaches out of sight behind the stables, to see the fuzzy moon and the watery clouds scudding above Normandy, was to find oneself transported back to a vanished time, and one would approach one’s grand front door, not speeding on a bicycle, but with a steady slippered tread and, on entering, smell, not dirt or cobwebs, but the fine powder on the men’s wigs, the lovely perfumes on the ladies’ breasts, the extraordinary palette of the ancien régime, such pinks and greens, gorgeous silks and satins whose colors rose and fell among the folds and melted into the candled night, and on these occasions my mother was the most luminous among the beautiful. Yet her true beauty—evanescent, fluttering, deeper and more grained than in the pencil portrait—did not reveal itself until the audience of liveried servants had been sent away. Then the curtains were drawn and my father made the coffee himself and served his peers carefully, one by one, and my mother, whose voice in her sickbed was thin as paper, began to sing:

A troubadour of Béarn,
His eyes filled with tears . . .


At this moment she was not less formal in her manner. Her slender hands lay simply on her lap, and it was to God Himself she chose to reveal her strong contralto voice. I have often enough, indiscreetly it seems now, publicly recalled my mother’s singing of “Troubadour Béarnais,” and as a result that story has gained a dull protective varnish like a ceramic captive in a museum which has been inquired of too often by the overly familiar. So it is that any tutoyering bourgeois and his wife can know the Comtesse de Garmont sang about the dead king and cried, but nothing would ever reveal to them Olivier de Garmont’s fearful astonishment at his mother’s emotions, and—God forgive me—I was jealous of the passion she so wantonly displayed, this vault of historic feeling she had hidden from me. Now, when I must remain politely at attention beside my father’s chair, I had to conceal my emotion while she gave away a pleasure that was rightly mine. Our guests cried and I experienced a violent repugnance at this private act carried out in public view.

His eyes filled with tears,
Sang to his mountain people
This alarming refrain:
Louis, son of Henri,
Is captive in Paris.


When she had finished, when our friends remained solemnly still, I walked across the wide rug to stand beside her chair and very quietly, like a scorpion, I pinched her arm.

Of course she was astonished, but what I remember most particularly is my wild and wicked pleasure of transgression. She widened her eyes, but did not cry out. Instead she tossed her head and gave me, below those welling eyes, a contemptuous smile.

I then walked, very coolly, to my bed. I had expected I would weep when I shut my door behind me. Indeed, I tried to, but it did not come out right. These were strange overexcited feelings but they were not, it seemed, of the sort that would produce tears. These were of a different order, completely new, perhaps more like those one would expect in an older boy in whose half-ignorant being the sap of life is rising. They seemed like they might be emotions ignited by sinful thoughts, but they were not. What I had smelled in that song, in that room full of nobles, was the distilled essence of the Château de Barfleur which was no less than the obscenity and horror of the French Revolution as it was visited on my family. Of this monstrous truth no honest word had ever been spoken in my hearing.

My mother would now punish me for pinching her. She would be cold, so much the better. Now I would discover what had made this smell. I would go through her bureau drawers when she was praying. I would take the key to the library. I examined the papers in my father’s desk drawers. I climbed on chairs. I sought out the dark, the forbidden, the corners of the château where the atmosphere was somehow most dangerous and soiled, well beyond the proprieties of the library, beyond the dry safe wine cellar, through a dark low square portal, into that low limitless dirty dark space where the spiderwebs caught fire in the candlelight. I found nothing—or nothing but dread which mixed with the dust on my hands and made me feel quite ill.

However, there is no doubt that Silices si levas scorpiones tandem invenies—if you lift enough rocks, you will finally discover a nest of scorpions, or some pale translucent thing that has been bred to live in a cesspit or the fires of a forge. And I do not mean the letters a certain monsieur had written to my mother which I wish I had never seen. It was, rather, beside the forge that I discovered the truth in some humdrum little parcels. They had waited for me in the smoky gloom and I could have opened them any day I wished. Even a four-year-old Olivier might have reached them; the shelf was so low that our blacksmith used it to lean his tools against. One naturally assumed these parcels to be the legacy of a long-dead gardener—dried seeds, say, or sage or thyme carefully wrapped for a season some Jacques or Claude had never lived to see. By the time I pushed my snotty nose against them, which was a very long time after the night I pinched my mother, they still exuded a distinct but confusing smell. Was it a good smell? Was it a bad smell? Clearly I did not know. Not even Montaigne, being mostly concerned with the smell of women and food, is prepared to touch on this. He ignores the lower orders of mold and fungus, death and blood, all of which might have served him better than his ridiculous assertion that the sweat of great men—he mentions Alexander the Great—exhaled a sweet odor.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Reading Group Guide

1. Why does Carey choose to let Parrot and Olivier narrate their own stories? What makes their narrative voices so distinctive and engaging? What would be lost if the novel were told from a single perspective or by an omniscient narrator?

2. In what ways are Parrot and Olivier uniquely positioned to represent the huge social changes that were sweeping across Europe and America during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries?

3. As he arrives in America, Olivier remarks that "the coast of Connecticut was the most shocking monument to avarice one could have ever witnessed, its ancient forests gone, smashed down and carted off for profit" (p. 144). What other instances of American greed does he observe? What is the irony of a French aristocrat being appalled by the greed given free rein by American democracy?

4. Carey's prose style in Parrot and Olivier in America is vivid, richly metaphoric, and often extravagantly sensuous. When Parrot and Mathilde make up after a fight, for example, Parrot writes that her "hands were dragging at my clothes and her upturned face was filled with cooey dove and tiger rage. Her mouth was washed with tears. I ate her, drank her, boiled her, stroked her till she was like a lovely flapping fish and her hair was drenched and our eyes held and our skins slid off each other and we smelled like farm animals, seaweed, the tanneries upriver" (p. 148). What are the pleasures of such writing? Where else in the novel does the writing reach this pitch of overflowing metaphor?

5. What does Olivier find to be the most appealing characteristics of America's fledgling democracy? What does he find most baffling?

6. Olivier is loosely based on Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat and author of the classic Democracy in America. In what ways does Olivier resemble Tocqueville? In what ways does Carey depart from the historical figure to create his own character?

7. How do Parrot and Olivier initially regard each other? What are the major turning points that lead to their unlikely friendship? Why is their friendship possible only in America?

8. At the end of the novel, Olivier argues that America's young democracy "will not ripen well," that it will suffer the "tyranny of the majority" (p. 378), and that the American people prefer their leaders to be just as undereducated as they are. He goes on to tell Parrot: "You will follow fur traders and woodsmen as your presidents, and they will be as barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of geography and science, the leaders of a mob daily educated by a perfidious press which will make them so confident and ignorant that the only books on their shelves will be instruction manuals…" (p. 380). Parrot attributes Olivier's harsh judgment to being heartbroken and having suffered as - a child of the awful guillotine' (p. 380). But to what extent have Olivier's predictions come true? In what ways can this passage be read as a sly commentary on recent presidents and the sorry state of the press in America?

9. How are Olivier and Parrot differently affected by the leveling of class distinctions in America? Does Parrot benefit from being in America?

10. Why does Amelia break off her engagement to Olivier? Does she make the right decision? Is Olivier better off without her?

11. Of the banker Peek's mortgage loan to Mathilde, Parrot says: "For Peek had played Shylock with her, himself lending her the capital and loading her to breaking point with every type of extra fee, compulsory insurance, brokerage, advance payments on taxes I am still sure that he invented" (p. 272). How surprising is it to see this version of today's housing boondoggles played out in in the 1830s? What is the significance of these schemes having such a long history?

12. After he discovers that Mathilde, Eckerd, and Watkins have burned down their house for insurance money, Parrot exclaims: "You are scoundrels, all of you." To which Mathilde replies: "We are artists. We have a right to live" (p. 314). Is Parrot right to call them scoundrels? Or is Mathilde's point of view the more sympathetic one?

13. What are some of the funniest moments in Parrot and Olivier in America? What makes Carey's writing so humorous?

14. What does the novel add to our knowledge of the early period of American democracy by seeing it through the perspectives of Parrot and Olivier? In what ways does the era described in the novel mirror our own?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 59 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 2, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Don't read the book reviews! Until now!

    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 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.

    14 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 10, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    This is a great fictionalized account of Alexis de Tocqueville's travels in America.

    In France, the aristocratic parents of Olivier-Jean-Baptist de Clarel de Barfleur are concerned with the safety of their son after his involvement with Louis XVIII, Napoleon III and Charles X. To keep him away from the guillotine, they ship him to the former colonies struggling with the concept of democracy.

    Knowing how easily Oliver gets into trouble, his father hires John "Parrot" Larrit the impoverished printer's son is sent with him as his secretary. Neither like nor respect the other. Oliver's haughty mouth gets them in trouble in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and points in between while Parrot expedites them from one incident after another; having gotten his first hand training in the Australian penal colony.

    Rotating perspective, this is a great fictionalized account of Alexis de Tocqueville's travels in America. Jocular yet poignant, readers will appreciate the same event as seen radically different by the son of the aristocrats vs. the son of a widower engraver. Parrot and Olivier in America will make the short lists for historical novel of the year.

    Harriet Klausner

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 9, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Funny and compelling-a marvelous page-turner!

    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 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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 8, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Carey spears us all with his wit on this one...

    Ooh, Peter Carey is a hooligan, a rough lad, a clever boy. He takes the opportunity this novel provides to lampoon the national character of France and America, though he went rather easier on the British and Australians. But what a send-up it is! Glorious with imagined scenes of snobbery and pomp in royalist France, and rife with grim scenes of those money-making (literally: counterfeiting) British printers, he moves a youngish Olivier, French aristocrat and lawyer, and his secrétaire, the former counterfeiter John Larrit (nicknamed Parrot), to America, ostensibly to investigate the state of American prisons. In America, Olivier had heard, prison management was trying something completely unprecedented: rehabilitation as opposed to life-long penitance. Modelled on Alexis de Tocqueville's (short for Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville) chatty travelogue Democracy in America, Olivier de Garmont's (full name Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont) book of the same name will surely be the greatest book on the habits of new country yet written. Narrated in amusing voice by Humphrey Bower, Parrot and Olivier in America illustrates with broad swathes of the pen-as-sword, the industrious and plebian democratists making a country they can live in. The young women of this new country are deliciously uninhibited, and the young men have a romantic notion they can aspire to greatness. The aristocrat and his secretary are both irrevocably changed by their term in America, become friends, and learn to live as equals. It is a journey both instructive and humorous, and we thank Peter Carey for turning his gimlet eye on our specificities.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 11, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Veers between engaging and "ennuyant"

    M. Olivier can be a bit of a bore and an infuriating one at that... and yet, there's something engaging here. If you've a fondness for the period, you may find the book intriguing as there are numerous small adventures and insights into the lives of the main characters. The overarching plot felt weak and didn't really propel the story along. Maybe I should read de Tocqueville in the original instead?

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 9, 2011

    great

    a joy to read.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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