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The lost art of forgiveness.

October 7, 2013

Christmas is a fraught time in a bookseller’s life. It generally begins in September, when you begin unpacking boxes full of shiny new releases cunningly timed to coincide with that special time of year when everyone is gripped by the need to spend money on gifts and lacking the kind of caution that might normally curb their spending habits. In October, you begin to feel slightly concerned by the fact that you haven’t yet had time to read any of these new releases and your pile of reading copies slash impulse purchases keeps growing; meanwhile, shelf space in your shop keeps shrinking. In November, trade has picked up dramatically and customers’ recommendation requests are tinged with a hint of aggression as they get closer to panic-buying stage. By December, you have generally lost the will to live. There is no shelf space anywhere, ever, all the new releases have coagulated in your brain to form one giant absurdist novel that involves a samurai octopus and a boy wizard, and every customer asks you questions like, ‘I need a present for my father-in-law. He doesn’t really read’, followed by an expectant stare.

Anyway. As we approach this special time of year, I generally deal with my panic by pretending that Christmas isn’t real, which, it turns out, isn’t a very effective strategy. Instead of working my way through the entire Man Booker shortlist and starting Donna Tartt’s new novel, one of this Christmas’s biggest releases and a book that I’m supposed to be reviewing in time for its October release (I might also mention that it’s 800 pages long, THANKS A LOT, DONNA), I just read a book that came out in—wait for it—August! Despite my feelings of immense guilt each time I cracked the spine, it was (mostly) worth it. Jonathan Dee’s A Thousand Pardons is a thoughtful and elegantly written exploration of self-destruction, reinvention, and forgiveness, albeit one that doesn’t quite hit all the marks with dead-on precision.

Dee is a gifted observer of the human condition; his last novel, The Privileges, was shortlisted for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize (although I thought 2003’s Palladio was the more accomplished work). He’s on familiar ground in A Thousand Pardons, revealing the emotional and moral complexities of wealthy white people’s problems with subtlety and pathos. What might feel trivial or empty in a lesser writer’s hands is always powerful and resonant in Dee’s work thanks to his graceful prose and nuanced characters.

Ben and Helen Armstead are barely keeping their marriage together. Ben, a successful litigator, has become depressed and unresponsive, ‘like the walking dead’, and Helen realises that their adopted teenage daughter, Sara, ‘was old enough now that none of this was lost on her whether she knew it yet or not’. After a failed attempt at marriage counselling, Ben commits a predictable act involving a nubile young intern at his office, and the consequences are serious and dramatic—and, finally, the catalyst that helps his dying marriage to Helen take its last breath.

In the wake of divorce, Helen finds herself, almost by accident, working at a struggling PR firm in New York City, where she discovers an unusual talent for being able to get powerful men who have committed scandalous wrongs—a restaurant owner who doesn’t pay fair wages, a councilman caught hitting his girlfriend on camera—to publicly admit their culpability, thus inviting forgiveness instead of ongoing recrimination and negative media attention. Eventually, her work puts her in contact with Hamilton Barthes, a Hollywood star on the brink of self-destruction. He’s an old classmate of Helen’s, and, though he has no recollection of her, she has always kept the memory of the brief time they shared a kiss together during their junior high school years.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of his undoing, Ben finds his own strange ways of reconciling his past and present selves. As Helen struggles to marry her newfound skill for prompting forgiveness in others with the growing anger she feels towards her ex-husband, Sara becomes increasingly aggressive and distant. Over the course of the novel, all three Armsteads grapple with their ability to understand and forgive themselves and each other; curiously, it’s Helen’s fraught reconnection with Hamilton that brings their various conflicts to some kind of imperfect resolution.

Dee’s novels often tackle themes of appearance versus reality, and A Thousand Pardons is no exception, with its insights into the Machiavellian world of public relations and celebrities saving face; these are neatly juxtaposed with the struggles of one family attempting to negotiate and overcome their private turmoils. There’s also a certain perverse satisfaction one gets from reading Dee’s tales of rich, privileged white people whose apparently perfect lives are perfectly illusory—his characterisation of the American Dream feels both brutal and poignant.

While he explores some interesting concepts, Dee almost loses his way about two thirds of the way through; his writing is sharp and perceptive, but his Hamilton subplot—which turns out to play a crucial part in the story’s resolution—feels slightly underdeveloped, and his ideas about human connection and forgiveness ultimately not mined as deeply as they could have been. For all that, however, A Thousand Pardons is a clever and engaging read and a curious tale of how wilfully we can blind ourselves to our own problems.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. dorothy10silver permalink
    October 14, 2013 4:36 am

    Hello Carody,

    I have just noticed that we are sharing review space on ‘Kill Your Darlings’, for the Man Booker shortlist. Compliments on your review and this blog. I’m wondering if you’d be interested in reviewing a book of mine? In case you are, my email address is dorothy.johnston@hugonet.com.au

    Best wishes,

    Dorothy Johnston

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