Summary and book reviews of Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

Parrot and Olivier in America

By Peter Carey

Parrot and Olivier in America
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  • Hardcover: Apr 2010,
    400 pages.
    Paperback: Jan 2011,
    400 pages.

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Book Summary

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.

Parrot

i

You might think, who is this, and I might say, this is God and what are you to do? Or I might say, a bird! Or I could tell you, madame, monsieur, sir, madam, how this name was given to me—I was christened Parrot because my hair was colored carrot, because my skin was burned to feathers, and when I tumbled down into the whaler, the coxswain yelled, Here’s a parrot, captain. So it seems you have your answer, but you don’t.

I had been named Parrot as a child, when my skin was still pale and tender as a maiden’s breast, and I was still Parrot in 1793, when Olivier de Bah-bah Garmont was not even a twinkle in his father’s eye.

To belabor the point, sir, I was and am distinctly senior to that unborn child.

In 1793 the French were chopping off each other’s heads and I was already twelve years of age and my endodermis naturalus had become scrubbed and hardened by the wind and mists of Dartmoor, from whose vastness my da and I ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This 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 the two-time winner of the Booker Prize and best-selling author Peter Carey.


About This Book
A tour de force of historical improvisation and vocal acrobatics, Peter Carey's new novel looks at postrevolutionary France and America through the eyes of two unforgettable narrators: Olivier and Parrot. The result is a vivid counterpoint and two wildly divergent perspectives on the same tumultuous period. It is also the story of a most unlikely friendship between a...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

[A] rich, intricate historical novel which places two very different foreigners in the middle of a completely alien society: American democracy in its infancy... These dissimilar characters allow readers to take a step back from what they know of this early period in United States history to experience it from two disparate, contrasting viewpoints, creating a sense of freshness and nostalgia for a more innocent America, the land of opportunity where anything is possible... The novel requires concentration and thought from its readers, and so it should be reserved for those in the mood for something a little heavy (think literary steak versus ice cream).   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

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Media Reviews
The Guardian (UK) - Thomas Jones

As long as his literary imagination is, like Parrot, settled in America, Carey seems unlikely to repeat the virtuosity of True History of the Kelly Gang.

The Guardian (UK) - Ursula Le Guin

... exactly as its title promises, the book is about Parrot and Olivier in America; but it's not about America. Its picture of the coarse, young United States of Andrew Jackson – is entertaining, if predictable... Are there hidden significances? I don't know. It's a dazzling, entertaining novel. Should one ask for more?

The Telegraph (UK) - John Preston

Like Carey’s 2001 Man Booker Prize-winner, True History of the Kelly Gang, Parrot and Olivier in America has an epic historical sweep to it. Yet for all the novel’s virtues, the book can’t muster the same emotional impact as its predecessor... In the end, the novel’s richness can’t disguise the fact that the plot rather lags behind the ideas driving it. That said, it’s still one hell of a ride.

The Independent (UK) - Andrew Taylor

The whole is rather less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps there's a little too much concept here. The fictional elements take second place to the ideas. The characters are brightly coloured and grotesquely lifelike puppets defined by their thoughts as much as feelings, and it's hard to engage with them other than intellectually. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, of course, and this is a book full of good things. But Carey has written better.

The Globe and Mail (Canada)

Funny, bawdy, brainy and moving, Parrot & Olivier in America is an utter delight.

Kirkus Reviews

Quirky and erudite, but the payoff in human-interest terms is meager.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Richly atmospheric, this wonderful novel is picaresque and Dickensian, with humor and insight injected into an accurately rendered period of French and American history.

Library Journal

Starred Review. [T]his engaging book will be particularly appreciated by readers interested in early 19th-century American history, the French aristocracy, and emerging democracy.

Booklist

Starred Review. Remarkably fluent in history, Carey is not beholden to his sources but, rather, empowered to create a thrillingly fresh and incisive drama of extraordinary personalities....

The New York Times

Parrot and Olivier in America grabs its subject and marches down Main Street playing full out, provoking a reader’s delighted applause and - as is often the case with this exuberant novelist - a small measure of exasperation.

Reader Reviews
JeanT

A Shore Too Far
Interesting, but I found it a bit tedious in the places. The humor was evidently too subtle for me, as I did not find it nearly as funny as others have described. I enjoyed the descriptions of life in Europe and the US in that time frame , but can't ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville was born in Paris on July 29, 1805. His parents, both of aristocratic background, narrowly avoided the guillotine during the aftermath of the French Revolution, and were exiled to England. They were later able to return to France during the reign of Napoleon. His father supported the Bourbon monarchy, eventually becoming Prefect of Versailles in 1826 and made a peer by Charles X in 1827.

Tocqueville entered the College Royal in Metz in 1821, at the age of 16, to study philosophy, and it was during these years that he began having doubts about the role of the aristocracy's role in France's government. He moved to Paris in 1823 to study law, and in 1827 became...

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