This is a book about an unlikely pairing of aristocrat and commoner, Frenchman and Englishman, and France and America. As the title suggests, there are two main characters in this novel, the French aristocrat Olivier (based off Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of the 1835 book, "Democracy in America") and Parrot, a lower class Englishman. For most of the book, Olivier comes off as a prig, and your sympathy and affection are for the downtrodden and very angry Parrot.
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In post-revolutionary France, a king is brought back and Olivier's family believes this will be their good fortune. Instead, what happens is that Olivier is sent to America to report back on the penal system in the new democracy. Through a family friend, the Marquis de Tilbot, Parrot is brought on as the young man's personal secretary for the voyage.
Both characters are upset with leaving, Olivier because he does not want to leave his mother or France, and he sees the assignment as essentially a form of exile. Parrot does not want to go because, after a very rough life, he's finally found happiness and a family with his partner Mathilde and her mother. However, they are both under orders to go, and at the last minute, Mathilde and her mother arrive to go with them. This leads to complications later on, but it's certainly a welcome development at the time.
Once they arrive in America, it takes a while for them both to get comfortable, but eventually both Olivier and Parrot find themselves taken with the place. They are also developing a grudging friendship. Olivier develops some affection for the rough Englishman, and Parrot is still mystified by “Lord Migraine's” aristocratic ways, but, at least sometimes, he exhibits more pity than disdain.
Olivier falls in love with a local woman, the daughter of a penal commissioner, and eventually he releases Parrot from his service and she starts doing Parrot's job of transcribing and taking notes for Olivier. By this time, Parrot and Mathilde have developed a kind of family in America. Through the unexpected reintroduction of Watkins, an artistic genius from Parrot's past, they have also begun a business. Watkins makes engravings of the birds of America, and Parrot uses his connections in Europe, including his connection with the Marquis de Tilbot, to sell sets of the engravings there.
In the meantime, things have progressed with Olivier and Amelia Godefroy, the daughter of his host, the penal commissioner. Olivier is interested in getting married, but he knows that they could only live in America. This is fine with him, but Olivier's mother gets wind of it, and tries to convince Parrot to get the young man back to France. She asks Parrot to lie and tell Olivier that his beloved childhood tutor is dying so he'll return immediately. The tutor is already dead, but she believes that once back in France, he'll stay there and forget Amelia.
Parrot tells Olivier the truth, and the young man stays despite his mother's wishes. Amelia gets wind of his unwillingness to take her to France, however, and she is insulted. She feels that he is embarrassed by her colonial ways, and she's unwilling to be an embarrassment. She breaks off the romance and, given the situation, Olivier needs to leave.
He seeks out Parrot again, and stays with his former servant. In an unexpected role reversal, it is now the aristocrat who is dependent on the servant to feed and keep him. The book ends with a political point, in that things have come full circle in America. The country has worked out very well for Parrot, and resulted in disappointment for Olivier.
Best part of story, including ending:
I quite liked the characters, and especially the reluctant and unlikely friendship that develops between them.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene is when Olivier and his potential father-in-law visit a Frenchman living in Philadelphia, and in the man's library, Parrot find a copy of a book for which he had done the engravings. He then, for the first time, goes into his adventures and misadventures in Australia, and how he came to be working on the engravings for that particular book.
Opinion about the main character:
Olivier I liked because, while he was arrogant, he was also trying to live in a world that no longer existed, and I think that's very relatable. Parrot has had many difficulties and catastrophes to overcome, and though he is very bitter, he also perseveres and succeeds, which is very admirable.