book review: A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee

The backstory: After loving Jonathan Dee's last novel, Pulitzer Prize finalist The Privileges (my review) so much it made my Best of 2011 list, I was ecstatic to hear he has a new novel out.

The basics: A Thousand Pardons is the story of Helen and Ben Armstead. The Armsteads live in Rensselaer Valley, an upstate suburb of New York City, with their adopted daughter Sara. When Ben's actions bring scandal to the family, their marriage ends, and Helen must find a job.

My thoughts: A Thousand Pardons is a slim novel composed of seven lengthy chapters. The novel's first chapter pulled me into this family and the narrative and left me stunned. It's a fascinating and bold set-up for the novel, but it also lulled me into thinking this was a different sort of novel than it turned out to be. The second chapter slowed the narrative's pace, and while I settled into the rest of the novel, I wondered if Dee would return to the pace of the novel's first chapter.

What propels the novel into action is a scandal. Dee crafts a wonderfully ordinary scandal for Ben. In our scandal-obsessed culture, it would be easy to think, 'that's it?' When you stop to think about the reaction his actions would have on those around him, however, and the scandal is at once ordinary and shocking: 
"I mean, it goes both ways," Sara said. "I understand you too. I get why you'd just wake up one day and say, Is this really my life? How did I even get here? And if you can't answer that question, you might start to act a little crazy."
A Thousand Pardons feels both small and large. It's ultimately the story of a family, but there are also numerous subplots. It's partially a coming of age story for Sara:
"You have to start seeing your parents as real people at some point."
It's a story of Helen's career resurgence in public relations, which underscores the themes of mistakes and forgiveness. It's the story of connections from long ago and forming new ones. Not all of these storylines are as satisfying as others, but A Thousand Pardons is a novel I enjoyed while I read it, but my appreciation for its scope came after I turned the last page.

Favorite passage:"That was it: she hated this place because she believed that some earlier, embarrassing version of herself still lived here."

The verdict: A Thousand Pardons is a satisfying read, but in its title and ending, Dee makes it clear it's a novel meant to be more than the sum of its parts. It's engaging plot and intriguing characters are enjoyable, if sometimes meandering, but its ending will keep me thinking for some time.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 224 pages
Publication date: March 12, 2013
Source: publisher via NetGalley

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy A Thousand Pardons from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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  1. Now I am wondering what this scandal was all about, and wondering about how the plot meanders, but still comes to the same shocking conclusion that it does. You have instilled a great sense of curiosity in me with your review!

  2. You've gotten me intrigued about this one!


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