2010 Man Booker Prize Shortlist
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"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." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"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." Booklist (starred review)
"One of those comic masterpieces that seems effortless while making you realize that Carey writes some of the best sentences in English." New Yorker.com
"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." Daily Telegraph
"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
Man Booker Prize Finalist
National Book Award Finalist
With this story of an unlikely friendship, Peter Carey explores the adventure of American democracy with the dazzling inventiveness and richness of characterization, story, and language that we have come to expect from this superlative writer.
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 sail for the New World to save his neck from one more revolution and Parrot is sent with him as spy, protector, foe, and foil. With the story of their unlikely friendship, Peter Carey explores the adventure of American democracy with the dazzling inventiveness and richness of characterization, story, and language that we have come to expect from this superlative writer.
About the Author
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.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Parrot and Olivier in America, the new novel, loosely based on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, by two-time winner of the Booker Prize and bestselling author Peter Carey.
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” (page 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” (page 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 De 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” (page 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 . . .” (page 380). Parrot attributes Olivier’s harsh judgment to being heartbroken and having suffered as “a child of the awful guillotine” (page 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” (page 272). How surprising is it to see this version of today’s housing boondoggles played out 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” (page 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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