Monday, January 17, 2011

O.K. By Me in America

While I was listening to Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey, I read a review of the book that went something like this:  "Parrot and Olivier in America is the story of an aristocrat and a servant who travel to America together and become friends."  To summarize Parrot  in that way is to compare it to Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel.  It is true that Olivier is a French aristocrat, Parrot is his British born servant, and they do, in fact, travel to America together, but the story is so much more and so much better than that.

The tale starts with Parrot in England, and Olivier in France, as children.  Both are invested in the outcome of the French Revolution. Olivier cares most obviously because of his noble lineage, and his desire to continue his way of life.  Parrot could not care less about the Bourbons, but does care about how he and his father will eat.  They find work with a printer in England, who has a hand in the Revolution himself.  Fast forward 20 years, to Olivier still a Royalist but questioning the cause, and Parrot working for his master, Monsieur Tilbot.  Tilbot orders Parrot to escort Olivier to America, where Olivier's mother thinks that he will be safer. 

Although neither of them knew it, even while they were in Paris both Parrot and Olivier were living in the past.  Olivier felt that as an aristocrat, he was entitled to certain privileges, and had certain duties which others had forgotten.  Although the Revolution should have altered Parrot's opportunities, he chose to live as a servant.  It is only when they get to America that they are forced to live the lives that the French Revolution was supposed to have brought to them in France.  Both are shocked at the informality and the opportunities for the common person, but both cling to their roles as master and servant fervently.  Grudgingly, each recognizes that the other has become his friend, and that America does have some good qualities.

While listening to this book, I felt a dorky sense of patriotism.  Don't get me wrong, patriotism isn't always dorky, but I was feeling a strange pride in the surprises that greeted Parrot and Olivier.  Carey made it easy to see that the object of the French Revolution was obtained in America years before it was realized in France.  Additionally, the characters were the first to admit that things that were just not possible in Europe were every day occurrences in America. 

A few months ago, I questioned whether Sarah Hall should have bragged on the cover of The Electric Michelangelo that it was "Short Listed for the Man Booker Prize." Like The Electric Michelangelo, Parrot was also short listed. I realize now, that being short listed for that prize is in fact quite a big deal, as there actually is a published short list, and if you are interested, a long list as well.

Next up:  The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

Still reading:  Sunnyside by Glen David Gold.  Around page 350 of this 650+ page book, I was questioning my commitment to it.  Specifically, while the kids were in bed, and my husband was playing wii, I had over an hour of uninterrupted time, and instead of reading Sunnyside, I chose to watch three back to back reruns of That 70s Show.  How great can a book be if I prefer watching reruns to reading it?  However, by the time I got to page 400 I was having a hard time putting the book down again.  Now I'm somewhere around page 525, and am really looking forward to reading more.

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