Most of the way through A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee I was thinking Jonathan Dee’s previous book was The Imperfectionists, but finally realized The Privileges was the book I should have been comparing it to. This made more sense, since A Thousand Pardons is more like The Privileges than The Imperfectionists in tone (snarky/sympathetic), subject (family/marriage breakdown and drastic life changes), characters (unhappy privileged New Yorkers and/or narcissists), and theme (self-destructive behavior and forgiveness).
At the start of the book, Helen and Ben have been married for eighteen years; have a twelve-year-old daughter whom they adopted from China as an infant; and have been in doomed marriage counseling for a while. Everyone in the family is tightly wound in his or her own way; it’s clear that something’s got to give. And, boy, it sure does, launching Helen, Ben, and Sara into completely changed lives – Helen into the world of public relations, Ben into rehab (actual and metaphorical), and Sara into the New York City public middle school scene.
Here’s an excerpt about Helen from very early in the novel, after Helen and Ben have driven home in silence to their tony New York suburb after a painfully revealing marriage counseling session:
She knew what the right thing to do was. Dismantle it together: help him find a new place, work out the money, sign whatever needed to be signed, put on a united front for poor Sara, who’d already had two parents abandon her, after all. But for once in her life Helen didn’t want to do it. Why should she make even this easy for him? She’d made everything easy for him for eighteeen years, and he repaid her by making an explosive, weepy public display of his horror at the very sight of her. Screw the right thing. If he hated her so much, if life with her was such a death sentence, then let’s see him be a man about it, for once, and devise his own escape.
If you’re a reader who can gleefully appreciate a truly spectacular marriage break-up, complete with public scandal, but feels sympathy for all parties involved and wishes there could be news stories how each of them picks up the pieces and go on, you’ll love the nuances of this sharply observed, very funny but ultimately humane, modern New York novel. Or – if you just like novels by authors named Jonathan (e.g. Franzen, Lethem, Tropper, Evison) you’ll probably like this one.
A Thousand Pardons
March 12, 2013
Disclosure: I received a free advance reading copy of A Thousand Pardons from the publisher through NetGalley.