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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Servant and Aristocrat Address 1830's America, 23 Mar 2010
This review is from: Parrot and Olivier in America (Hardcover)
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. But, he can serve no equivalent function for Olivier, who simply wants a servant and secretary. In America, Larritt is faced with the challenge of personal reinvention and must ultimately determine if and how America can suit his and his wife's talents.

In telling the story of Parrot and Olivier, Carey uses many narrative devices and issues that exist elsewhere in his oeuvre. This, for example, is my fourth Carey book that features a book within a book. (The others were Jack Maggs, True History of the Kelly Gang, and My Life as a Fake). Meanwhile, themes in PaOiA that are prominent in other Carey novels include fraternal tension and responsibility, absent fathers, fraudulent behavior by artists (Theft: A Love Story), and the mysterious power of love (His Illegal Self). Similar to other Carey novels, PaOiA also has an abundance of sympathetic characters and writing that is brisk and sometimes amazingly lyrical.

Even so, I'd rate PaOiA a notch below Carey's other work. In part, I'd attribute this to the highly coincidental events featuring the character O'Hara, which serve to reunite Parrot and Olivier. I wonder: Are these events a direct reference to de Tocqueville's actual experiences in New York? And, even if they are, why are they necessary?

Also, I'd say that the critical relationships in this novel are men to women--that is Parrot to Mathilde and Olivier to Amelia. In contrast, the relation between Parrot and Olivier, which gets lots of space, was primarily economic and functional. That's certainly okay. But I think Carey strived, but failed, to make that relationship mean more.

Marked up to four stars.
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