My apology pales
2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist Jonathan Dee’s sixth novel A Thousand Pardons, introduces readers to the Armsteads, an unhappy family teetering perilously close to the edge of disaster. Hold on tight, because they’re about to crash spectacularly.
Husband/Father Ben is having what most of us would consider a mid-life crisis. However, he refers to it as an existential one. He feels that we each only get so many days and that he’s wasting each of his repeating the same daily grind over and over. At the same time he’s scared of dying. Simply put, he’s bored of living through the repetitiveness, yet he doesn’t want his life to end. He needs it to change. Fast. He’s just not sure how to make that happen.
The catalyst for the change he’s been seeking predictably arrives in the form of a young, sexy intern at the office where he practices law. He chases her for months. She finally relents and agrees to a rendezvous at a hotel room. Her boyfriend shows up. These things happen. You get the idea. What’s interesting is that even though Dee’s novel is spectacularly written. Even though he’s a master character builder and he possesses the uncanny ability to keep you glued to the page, reading even when you realize that you don’t really like the characters he’s describing all that much. This meltdown is the most realistic thing that happens in the entire book. It happens less than 50 pages in.
Why keep reading then? Because even though everything that happens from that pivotal point forward is hopelessly unlikely, it’s still an engaging tale, one that juxtaposes private lives and public disgrace as it asks the reader not to sympathize with its subjects, not to pass judgment on them, but to simply follow along with them on a journey of self-discovery. For Ben, that discovery is the realization that destroying his life, embarrassing his family in the process, and forcing change upon all of them, ultimately brings him little joy. His is a tale of stripping oneself of everything in order to discover what lies underneath. His wife Helen is a different matter.
A 40-something housewife, Helen must now attempt to reenter the workforce after a thirteen year absence which found her happily raising the couples adopted Chinese daughter Sara. How does a woman with little-to-no work experience find a high paying job in today’s economy so that she can continue to live the lifestyle that she and her daughter are accustomed to? Well, she simply throws together a thin CV, goes on four job interviews, and voila! She’s hired by low level marketing firm, where she quickly blossoms and realizes that she’s got an innate gift for crisis management resolution. Yeah. If that fairy tale ain’t enough for you, later it’s revealed that in middle school she once made out with a boy who grew up to be movie star. Better still? Guess who ends up having a crisis she needs to deal with? The cast of characters is rounded out by her daughter.
Fractured by the divorce and feeling abandoned by her mother’s new long work hours, Sara begins to drop out of her life. She was a star athlete, but now she’s content to skip practice and quit teams. She meets a boy and starts a thrilling relationship that quickly turns dangerous. She smart though, if not a little too whiny, and things could still turn around for her, if only either of her parents would care enough to make her the focal point of their lives.
In the end, A Thousand Pardons hits all the right notes with regards to its intended message, but drops the ball completely in terms of realistic storytelling. That doesn’t mean you should avoid this one, in fact it’s quite good in regards to its character development. You just have to be willing to suspend your belief a little beyond that which is usually required from this type of dysfunctional family novel.
A Thousand Pardons
By Jonathan Dee