I so wanted to like this. It was looking out from the shelves looking so much like one of this year’s favorites. But our tepid relationship only lasted a little over half its 451 pages and then I moved on.
Sickly, sensitive aristocrat Olivier de Garmont and most of his family got through the French Revolution and are now trying to survive Bonaparte’s regime. But when the monarchy is restored, their situation doesn’t improve and for his own protection, Olivier’s family sends him to America against his will. The excuse: France desperately needs a report on the American prison reform and Olivier is the person to do it. His travel companion is Parrot, the son of an itinerant English printer. Parrot is also not very keen on the trip or becoming Olivier’s servant, especially because at the same time he’s spying on Olivier for the mysterious one-armed Marquis de Tilbot, whose presence haunts the novel.
Even writing this summary makes me want to know more about the rest of the story!
The historical detail is there. The setting allows interesting themes of culture, politics and class division to be explored. So why did I find it so uninteresting? I think the problem is that Carey was so keen on making Olivier and Parrot the embodiment of their country, class and education that they became mere caricatures. And since they were caricatures surrounded by a realistic background, it just didn’t work. Especially if the book is, in the end, not about America or France, but about Parrot and Olivier… in America (which they reached only 200-pages in by the way).
Because the novel was written using a first-person narrator, Carey went for a baroque prose, making the story slower than it could have been. You’ll find beautiful, poetic language in each paragraph, but it’s a bit too much for an entire novel. The whole thing felt too dense, too over-engineered and just not that funny.
It’s my first Peter Carey. Do you recommend any of his other books? I think I might enjoy his more prosaic language.