It’s hard to do such a sprawling book any justice in just 200 words, but let’s try: young French noble (Olivier) is kidnapped and put on a boat to America by order of his parents, survivors of the French revolution, in order to keep him out of (political) trouble. He is accompanied by a reluctant English servant he hates (Parrot). Hijinx, romance, and personal growth ensue. We become (extensively) acquainted with their complicated histories. The two reluctantly become friends and achieve different understandings of America as a country and an idea.
It was beautifully written, with the kind of luscious language that makes me wish I made more time for poetry, and there were arresting set pieces along the way, but I was occasionally bored because there wasn’t a clear sense of what the point was. It never comes together to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its many beautifully moving parts. The last few pages had me thinking it was all about the American experiment: the way the country’s character (like a person's) is both its luck and its doom, but that felt a little tacked-on, a little like an after-thought. There was an idea in there somewhere about how our origins mark us (but, you know, duh). The whole thing felt rough, like somewhere in there is the story that wants to be told, but Carey hasn’t quite got a hold of it. So: it’s not a great novel, but it’s still worth a read, especially if you’re a fan of historical fiction. As Ursula Le Guin put it in her review: “Are there hidden significances? I don't know. It's a dazzling, entertaining novel. Should one ask for more?”