The novel opens in France where sickly, sensitive Olivier de Garmont and the remnants of his aristocratic family have survived the Revolution and the Terror of 1793, and are surviving the Bonaparte regime in their chateau in Normandy. The restoration of the monarchy brings no joy to Olivier's family, and his family decides to send him to America - ostensibly to study prison reform.
Parrot, considerably older than Olivier, is the son of an itinerant English printer. Olivier and Parrot are brought together by the mysterious one-armed Marquis de Tilbot whose presence looms large across the novel. When Olivier sets sail for America, Parrot accompanies him as both protector and spy.
The narrative shifts between the perspectives of Parrot and Olivier, covering both their adventures together and their separate lives. This enables the introduction and exploration of a number of different themes in the novel: including love, politics and ambition. I especially enjoyed the differing views of democracy:
`In a democracy, it seemed, one could not go against a servant's will.' (Olivier)
`I read Tom Paine by candlelight, but for 18 hours a day I was a vassal.' (Parrot)
Olivier is trapped by his past, caught between his aristocratic past and a brash new world where equality means dealing with people of different classes and station in life as though they are equals. Olivier is never really comfortable in America, although when he falls in love with an American heiress he sees some possibilities. Parrot, on the other hand, has already experienced much in his life and is more flexible in his approach to opportunities. It is Parrot's narrative that particularly enriches the story because it enlarges the world beyond that of the myopic Olivier.
The novel may have been inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville's travels through America, but there is more than one story in this novel. Parrot's life has been far more varied and he is, it seems, far better equipped to survive in the New World.
I am tempted to write more about this novel: it's vibrant, energetic and vastly entertaining. But for me, a lot of the pleasure was derived from reading the novel without knowing what was likely to happen next, and I don't wish to spoil this for others. Read it for pleasure, dissect it for significant themes if you so choose. But if you do choose to explore those themes then you may need to reread the novel - or read it at a far more leisurely pace than I did.
`Who would have imagined such an extraordinary world?'
The ripples of the revolutions of the last quarter of the eighteenth century have not settled yet, as the author takes us into the third decade of the nineteenth. Two unlikely partners navigate the reshaping societies of Europe and America, and through their turmoil and adjustments, find their places. Carey allows his two protagonists to tell us their stories, capturing in their voices the complexities of the changing worlds. It is a delightful book, rich in its language, and yet sensuous and funny at the same time. It is a worthy finalist of the 2010 Booker prize.