4.5 out of 5: In Parrot and Olivier in America, Peter Carey uses the medium of a historical novel to explore the concept of democracy as it existed in the early years of the United States. French aristocrat Olivier is sent by his family to America to study the new nation's prison system and to escape the hostilities threatening aristocrats in his home country. Once in America, Olivier is captivated and puzzled by the country's democratic ideals. In his travels, Olivier is accompanied by John "Parrot" Larrit, who acts as Olivier's secretary. Ultimately, the relationship between Olivier and Parrot undergoes a dramatic change as it encounters the egalitarian spirit of America. The character of Olivier is Carey's fictionalization of the great French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the influential Democracy in America. However, Parrot and Olivier in America goes well beyond a mere retelling of the travels of a historic personality to create a complex world of interlinking characters and events.
The story unfolds through the alternating narrations of Olivier and Parrot (a favorite technique of Carey's). By the end of the novel, Parrot's character, wise and full of heart, has stolen the show, but the spoiled and self-focused Olivier shows eventual signs of reformation. Carey refuses to tie up all the loose ends, making the novel seem all the more realistic and complex. Parrot and Olivier in America is a fascinating read when viewed as an intellectual examination of the early days of American democracy and its effects on human interactions, particularly those between diverse classes. More superficially, the novel also succeeds as a good, page-turning story.