Parrot and Olivier in America

Written by Peter Carey
Review by Pamela Ortega

What a delight this witty novel is! Based on the journeys of Alexis de Tocqueville in the new American republic of the 1830s, it tells the story of Olivier, a young, exiled French aristocrat, and John Larrit, “Parrot,” a middle-aged, working-class Englishman. While based on Tocqueville’s adventures and observations, it is the details of Parrot’s often hapless life that propel this story. Parrot’s native intelligence and artistic talent take him far beyond his rough beginnings as an orphan and give him a glimpse into the possibilities of a better life. The rigid hierarchy of Europe and Parrot’s servitude to a mysterious French marquis kept him in thrall to the aristocracy. This same marquis manipulates Olivier’s life as well and leads them both to America.

Before their transatlantic voyage, however, the reader is taken from rural, working- class England and aristocratic Paris to the penal colony of Australia as Parrot’s life spins out of his control. It is as Olivier’s servant and scribe in America, however, that his life unfolds and blossoms in the possibilities of freedoms in the young America, the same freedoms that terrify and appall Olivier. Heartfelt and very funny, with love affairs for both characters, it is a fascinating look at the early American character with direct parallels to the 21st century United States. Highly recommended.