A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee
A Thousand Pardons begins with the story of a family’s destruction. The Armsteads are an affluent suburban family living outside Manhattan. Ben is a partner in a law firm and Helen manages the home and their adopted Chinese daughter, Sara. The novel begins with the couple setting off for their ‘date night’, rather a meeting with a marriage counsellor where, in the midst of his mid-life crisis, Ben utters the comment which starts the beginning of the end of his marriage, ‘It’s like a f—ing death sentence, coming back to that house every night. I mean, no offense.’
Ben subsequently self-destructs on a grand scale with a girl half his age, leading to a very public arrest and jail sentence. Helen moves swiftly to Manhattan where she lands a job handling ‘crisis management’ for a PR firm. Here Helen discovers that her simple, pragmatic advise to clients: apologise, becomes revolutionary. Helen doesn’t completely understand why her tactic works but is later told by the CEO of a large multinational PR firm that, ‘I think we’re going to rewrite the textbooks for crisis management before we’re done’. On a personal level, Helen struggles with Sara whose loyalties swing forcefully toward Ben. Sara also chooses a boyfriend much like her father – one who seemingly has ‘everything’ but in reality lies empty.
Helen’s personal morality and professional success also become compromised when she encounters a crisis generated by a childhood friend, a Hollywood actor named Hamilton Bath. Dee says that he chose an actor over, say, a politician because ‘he is, is more negotiable’. Bath’s initial unwillingness to confess to a crime he may or may not have committed, underpins the recurring motif of A Thousand Pardons, which is the public’s desire for genuine, uncomplicated sincerity.
Dee is also concerned with the idea of genuine forgiveness, which also highlights the forgiveness Helen withholds from Ben; there is no mention of Ben being given a second chance, for example. It seems that the book’s title draws on the double meaning of ‘pardon’, being something proffered as well as something granted. There are frequent similarities drawn between PR and Catholicism (Helen and Bath first meet at a Catholic school), so that one reads with the hope that redemption and reconciliation lie just beyond the next page. But neither Ben, nor his daughter Sara, make any apologies for their behaviour. And in the end, the story hinges upon the subplot with Bath confessing and – given the fact he has ended up living with Helen’s ex-husband – seeming to do so on behalf of Ben.
A Thousand Pardons is an engaging, page-turning read, which holds power to make one laugh aloud. Dee depicts educated, middle-class life with a cool precision using ‘effortless’ prose. Overall it is quick-paced, intelligent read and much of the novel’s success comes from its three protagonists being well drawn and sympathetic. One of the reasons I related to this book is the message it gives about the financial vulnerability of the stay-at-home-mother. It takes considerable trust and courage to give up the ability to support oneself which might suggest this book is more suitable for 40-60 year old women and would, no doubt, provoke some interesting book club discussions. Ben, of course, disappoints Helen on many levels and yet her ability to transform herself from victim to victor is encouraging, if at times slightly unbelievable. But perhaps these are the fantasies held in the hearts of middle-aged women, fantasies lying realistically though painfully, beyond the love story, providing engrossing and comforting escape. Plot contrivances as well as a certain frothiness and a moral parable style may annoy certain readers. Some may also have liked the author to delve deeper enough into the complexities and contradictions that make up America’s relationship to redemption. But, overall, an engaging read and, having stumbled upon this novel at precisely at the right time, I’m reminded how clever books are for knowing when to come to us!
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