A Thousand Pardons. By Jonathan Dee. Corsair, 2013. 224 pp. Corsair. £16.99. ISBN: 978 1 849 01737 4.
Jonathan Dee’s sixth novel, A Thousand Pardons, betrays a significant literary debt to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010) in its plot and dramatis personae. Both novels feature career-driven, middle-aged husbands and fathers – one a lawyer, the other an environmentalist. Budding disaffection with their homemaking wives, ennui and extramarital affairs chip away at the scaffolding of both marriages. Daughters, unhinged by the separation of their disconsolate fathers and harried mothers, artfully mediate or give their parents pause for thought. In the end the parents reunite.
Dee would appear to have the makings of a satisfying novel: one in which – in the hands of Franzen, James Salter, or John Cheever – subtle changes in affect, vocal inflections, strained silences, or physical details might have signalled the unmaking and remaking of marital bonds. Not so in A Thousand Pardons, where the serrated edges of Helen and Ben Armstead’s grief temper the reader’s sympathy. The novel opens with Helen lamenting her evenings in couples’ therapy because “to do nothing was to find it acceptable that you were in a marriage where you hardly spoke to or touched each other, where your husband was so depressed he was like the walking dead and yet the solipsism of his depression only made you feel cheated and angry”. Ben, too, is frustrated, rambling, “have you ever been so bored by yourself that you are literally terrified? . . . When every day begins I know that I have lived it before, I have lived the day to come already”. Incapable of discerning or expressing the subtleties of his emotions, he writes them off as “an existential crisis”. The Armsteads’ unqualified, uninflected and combative opinions, and the frenetic monologues into which they are compressed, render the novel far less moving than the detailed accretion and gradual unveiling of feeling would have done.
The novel’s rushed pace and emotional volatility persist as Ben engages in a disastrous affair with an intern and endures time in rehabilitation and prison. His wife and their daughter Sara relocate so that Helen can pursue a career in public relations, helping damaged individuals and companies to mend their reputations. The frayed mother–daughter relationship and the disruptive reappearance of a high school friend of Helen’s contribute to the novel’s antic tenor. Only Ben’s sincere yet halting communications with Sara – a clandestine meeting in which he gives her a small Christmas gift she can hide from her mother, his daily emails from prison, and his phlegmatic, non-judgemental manner when she shares her troubles with him – rescue the narrative from its brazen displays of emotion.
This piece was published in the July 26, 2013 issue of the Times Literary Supplement. Here are the table of contents and proof.