It's the mid-19th century and France is in the middle of a Revolution. Olivier de Garmont is the son of French aristocrats and to say he is a snob is putting it mildly. Parrot is an Englishman who at the age of 12 was forced to flee to Paris after his father was arrested for forging counterfeit currency and ends up working for Olivier's family. When Olivier is sent to America to investigate their penal system, to his dismay he finds that Parrot is being sent along with him as his servant/secretary.
The trip does not start out well. Olivier suspects that Parrot has been sent to spy on him by his parents and Parrot deeply resents having to be of service to Olivier, as evidenced through his nickname for him - Lord Migraine. But over time, as they both explore the New World and all of the opportunities it has available for them, their relationship changes and a friendship emerges. Olivier embarks on a wider study of American life and Parrot begins to flourish in the new land.
Peter Carey modelled Parrot & Olivier in America after Alexis de Tocqueville and his work "Democracy in America" and from what little I do know of the work, it's a new way of looking at the work. Unfortunately, a lot of this may be lost on the reader.
The novel is heavy on the descriptive language. The first 200 pages of the book are full of description and honestly difficult to get through. Once Parrot and Olivier arrive in America the book picks up, there is a bit less of the imagery, a bit more storyline and it becomes easier to follow. My read-through definitely benefitted from being put on a hold for a few days around page 175, so I could come back at it fresh. That didn't last for long however and I found myself pressing through when I would have rather put it down.
The character of Olivier is highly annoying, though that is the point. Parrot provides great comedy with commentary and insight into Olivier/Lord Migraine. The storyline is rather predictable, especially the ending, and doesn't take the reader on many (or any) emotional journeys. It does give the reader a good understanding of American life in the mid-19th century and the ideals behind it.
Parrot and Olivier in America is one of those books that critics and juries will love and readers will be left wondering why. Reading this book is a big task to take on and is not an easy one. If you do give it a go, make sure you give it a lot of time and bring a lot of patience with you.