Set against the 1830 July Revolution in France, a young, French aristocrat (based on the real-life Alexis de Tocqueville) is dispatched to the emerging USA together with a British servant. Carey's rich, lyrical prose explores the emergence of democracy, attitudes to art and the power of love as these two unlikely companions find their way in America with varying amounts of success.
Olivier de Garmont is a young, French aristocrat who is drugged by the enigmatic Marquis de Tilbot, a close friend of Olivier's monarchist mother, and dispatched to the safety of the emerging United States to avoid the 1830 July Revolution, and the threat of the dreaded guillotine, in his native France. At least nominally his task while there is to prepare a report on the American penal system on behalf of the French government, a task for which he has little interest or indeed talent. Tilbot also dispatches his servant, an older British man, John Larrit, known to everyone as Parrot, to act as Oliver's secretary, servant, translator and to spy on Olivier for both his mother and Tilbot. They are an ill-matched pair, from opposite sides of the social spectrum but in democratic America, this relationship develops in ways that neither of them would expect. The story is told in alternating voices of these two main characters.
The relationship between them is not unlike the Regency Blackadder series. Olivier is an aristocrat through and through and is bemused by the whole concept of American democracy. Parrot on the other hand is from the school of hard knocks. His life has been a series of unfortunate adventures than, taking him from serving a forger of French currency in Devon, via Australia and back to France before finally ending up with Olivier in America. He's nothing if not street-wise.
Olivier, following Tocqueville, constantly laments the lack of culture in this new land, but will love soften his views and enable him to finally embrace the democratic way? Although more suited to the advantages of the culture, will Parrot ever truly escape his servile relationship with Olivier and Tilbot? Of course, it's more complex than that. Olivier's belief is that art in a democracy will be determined by the market rather than pure. Parrot himself has artistic leanings and friends and family with even more artistic heritage. Carey spends much time on Tocqueville's views about art in a democracy.
It's a story about clashes of culture, the birth of democracy, absent fathers, artistic fraud and temperament, and, ultimately, the strength of love. Significantly, the book which begins in Olivier's voice, ends in Parrot's, perhaps underlying the author's optimism for his adopted homeland.
While the story is basically linear, as Parrot himself admits, the relating of his story in particular is somewhat jumbled and this can be frustrating at times, and it is sometimes difficult to get a sense of the time development of the story. While both Olivier and Parrot have distinctive and convincing voices and you find yourself rooting for each in their own stories which is generally a clear sign of effective characterisation. There are some terrific minor characters as well, some of whom are almost Dickensian in their depiction.
Carey's style continues to be highly lyrical. It's something you will either relish or get frustrated by. Just be prepared for it. In many ways this is unavoidable too since Carey has taken the decision to intersperse some of Alexis de Tocqueville's words into the narrative and the fact that these are largely undetectable indicates how rich and lyrical the rest of the book is.
Where, for me, the book falls down is that there is, at one or two critical junctions in the story, rather too much reliance on coincidence. It's a book where you genuinely don't know what will happen next, so I won't spoil it by explaining where the coincidences arise, but there are a few times where events stretch credibility somewhat, which is a shame.