I’m loathe to start a review of Jonathan Dee’s most-wonderful, most-brilliant new novel, A Thousand Pardons, with a reference to Jonathan Franzen but if I don’t get it off my chest, it will make me peevish.
Here’s the thing – while everyone is getting their undies in a twist over Jonathan Franzen there’s Jonathan Dee. His stories are character-rich. His observations of modern society are astute and, quite pleasingly, snarky. His plots are detailed and surprising.
When I read a promo for A Thousand Pardons recommending the book for “…readers of Jonathan Franzen….” quite frankly, I felt annoyed. Dee isn’t your ‘filler’ between puffed-up Franzen releases. Read him because his books are brilliant.
So, now that I’ve had my whinge, to the book. In summary, it’s the story of Helen and Ben Armstead, a couple at breaking point. It begins with them leaving their teenage daughter, Sara, at home while they head off for their regular ‘date night’.
“On the television a girl and her father appeared to be auditioning a group of male strippers. “Happy Date Night,” Sara said in a deep voice meant to sound hickish or retarded, and with one finger she mimed inducing herself to vomit.”
But Helen and Ben are actually going to couples counseling where, much to Helen’s surprise, Ben reveals more than anticipated –
“I’m scared of every element of my day. Every meal I eat, every client I see, every time I get into or out of the car. It all frightens the shit out of me. Have you ever been so bored by yourself that you are literally terrified? That’s what it’s like for me every day. That is what it’s like for me sitting here, right now, right this second. It’s like a fucking death sentence, coming back to that house every night. I mean, no offense.” “No offense?” Helen said. “It’s not that Helen herself is especially boring, I don’t mean that, or that some other woman might be more or less boring. It’s the situation. It’s the setup. It’s not you per se.”
That’s not the only magnificent speech by Ben in the counselor’s office. There’s another announcing his existential crisis. You won’t miss it.
From there, the Armstead’s privileged, white-bread life quickly deteriorates, taking their marriage and their reputations with it.
“Only her closest friends made a show of everything being just as it was before, which was worse in a way. There was now an element of performance to their friendship, even when no one else was around to see or be upbraided by their example…”
Helen and Ben go their separate ways – Helen to stumble into a career in public relations and Ben to slowly live out the punishments (legal and social) for his transgressions.
Dee writes in a style that stops me in my tracks. His sentences are so sharp, so incisive that I found myself reading passages over again (in admiration). Even seemingly inconsequential details are studded with Dee’s laconic style –
“In reply the young executive – who was wearing one of those striped dress shirts with a white collar; Lord, Helen hated those shirts, they were like sandwich boards for assholes…”
And because he writes so wonderfully, I’ll overlook the unlikely fact that Helen lands a career in the cut-throat world of PR (in New York, no less) without a shred of previous experience (although the interview scene is a gem).
There are so many themes to get your teeth into, my piddly review will hardly do this book justice – think mid-life crises, the play-off between public image and private lives and honesty. Dee weaves these themes together so carefully and so cleverly that the ending, when it came, was perfectly fitting.
5/5 It’s got it all – unlikable, reckless characters you can’t get enough of, a plot with twists and turns and an ending that leaves you pondering.
Short of alcohol and Chinese takeaway, there are few references to food in this book. I did like these thoughts on dinner though –
“She talked to her mother easily enough when the atmosphere was more relaxed and spontaneous, but at the table it felt quaint and enforced, all the more so now that the conceit that they were a Normal Family, one that Sat Down To Dinner Together, had been debunked forever. Nothing provoked a teenager like a whiff of hypocrisy.”
In honour of Helen’s work with the owner of a Chinese takeaway, I’m pairing A Thousand Pardons with one of my favourites, Peking Duck Pancakes.