Forgive Us for Not Recommending the Bland but Passable ‘A Thousand Pardons’

If you like your contemporary fiction nice and safe, look no further than Jonathan Dee’s A Thousand Pardons (Random House, $26). The plot is layered and reasonably paced, but the novel has no sharp edges. It is almost completely free of any stylistic flair, there’s nothing here that announces “This is a novel that must be read.”

Dee is a fine writer—his last novel, The Privileges (2011), was a Pulitzer Prize finalist—but A Thousand Pardons feels tired and old-fashioned. This novel is a relic, a real throwback, and my guess is that’s exactly what some readers will feel compelled to do if they bother to pick up A Thousand Pardons at all.

Dee’s novel begins with an 18-year marriage in serious decline. From the start, it’s clear that Helen and Ben Armstead’s relationship won’t survive the first chapter. Ben is a lawyer in the midst of an existential crisis who is publicly disgraced when he focuses his attention on an attractive summer associate at his New York City law firm. The results of Ben’s failed dalliance come quickly: a DUI, a civil lawsuit, jail time, divorce papers.

Helen is forced to go back to work in order to support herself and Sara, their adopted daughter. Dee does his best to give each of these three characters adequate space to develop, but it’s Helen’s story that quickly dominates as she re-enters the work force.

Helen takes a job at Harvey Aaron’s small public relations firm where she quickly discovers her gift for crisis management, encouraging clients to make public apologies. Sara, an eighth grader, does her best to fit in at her new school, befriending an older boy and occasionally cutting school to be with him.

One of my real problems with A Thousand Pardons, aside from Dee’s occasionally dull prose, is the way Dee lets plot—rather than the characters—drive the novel. Ben spends most of his time in rehab, until his presence is required to move the story forward. The same is true of Hamilton Barth, the movie star with whom Helen grew up. Barth conveniently reappears halfway through the book to steer the third act into total implausibility.

Helen and Hamilton reconnect at a movie premiere—much to the disgust of Sara—and events quickly spiral into crisis mode. It’s unlikely, but it brings the plot full circle and allows all three of our principles (Helen, Ben and Sara) to reconnect in a satisfying way.

A Thousand Pardons is a novel about rehabilitation, public perceptions and—ultimately—forgiveness. I didn’t buy it for a minute, but I’ll admit there was more than one instance where I found myself scanning the pages just a little faster, simply to see where Dee was heading. This isn’t a great novel, but it’s good enough. ★★☆☆☆

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[ librarian loves ]

Selected by Jeanne Goodrich, executive director for the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District.

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