Once a privileged and loving couple, the Armsteads have now reached a breaking point. Ben, a partner in a prestigious law firm, has become unpredictable at work and withdrawn at home—a change that weighs heavily on his wife, Helen, and their preteen daughter, Sara. Then, in one afternoon, Ben’s recklessness takes an alarming turn, and everything the Armsteads have built together unravels, swiftly and spectacularly.
Thrust back into the working world, Helen finds a job in public relations and relocates with Sara from their home in upstate New York to an apartment in Manhattan. There, Helen discovers she has a rare gift, indispensable in the world of image control: She can convince arrogant men to admit their mistakes, spinning crises into second chances. Yet redemption is more easily granted in her professional life than in her personal one.
As she is confronted with the biggest case of her career, the fallout from her marriage, and Sara’s increasingly distant behavior, Helen must face the limits of accountability and her own capacity for forgiveness.
On the surface, A Thousand Pardons is an averagely typical contemporary novel – centered around a white, middle class American family in the 21st century and their daily trials and tribulations, it throws up a relate-able and somewhat familiar situation in order to ask the some of the most popular questions of the modern day; including ‘What happens when things go wrong at work’, ‘How to save a failing marriage’, ‘How to deal when the whole world seems to turn against you’, and, most importantly in this particular story, ‘What do we actually mean when we ask for forgiveness’.
The story begins with the Armsteads – husband Ben, wife Helen and adopted daughter Sara – a family who are thought to be pretty happy bumbling along in their own way, in their steady jobs and nice house and comfortable marriage, tucked away in the leafy New York suburb of the Rensselaer Valley. Before the end of the first chapter, however, we learn that contrary to their effort to ‘keep up appearances’, when Ben and Helen drive away for their weekly ‘date night’ they are in actual fact attending couples counselling to deal with the ever-increasing cracks in their once perfect relationship. Ben appears to be having some sort of mid-life existential crisis and talks of being bored and afraid of his humdrum routine; hating the fact that days are passing by with nothing changing, no excitement or spontaneity or sense of accomplishment. Helen doesn’t understand and takes immediate offense at what she sees to be a personal attack on her, their daughter, their home and their life, withdrawing into herself in an effort to avoid confrontation and thus pushing Ben further and further into his pit of despair. Things finally crack when Ben spends an evening after work in a hotel room with the office intern, before attempting to drive home well under the influence of two too many Bourbons. A nasty accident and hospital stay later, Ben is accused of social and sexual misconduct and forced to resign from his job and face a police trial, the outcome of which ends up being a short prison sentence and a total destruction of trust between him and his family.
With her life shattered, Helen quickly realises that she herself must now be a provider for Sara, and, unable and unwilling to stay in their old house with her soon to be ex-husband, she relocates the two of them to a cramped apartment in New York City and searches for full time work to support both her purse and her fragile mental state. Quite by accident Helen discovers she has a rare and unique talent – turning potential media crises into neatly wrapped up, shiny PR packages. Her nack at giving businesses and showbiz individuals a second chance allows her to put a positive spin on her own past experiences and pent-up frustrations, and although her and Ben have passed the point of no return, it’s interesting from a readers perspective to see the transgression of their interactions, from bitterly vocalized discontent to composed and respectful understanding. Sara is an interesting dynamic throughout, acting and speaking like the stroppy, spoiled and selfish teenager that she is, and Dee writes her angst ridden mother-daughter/father-daughter scenes perfectly.
To keep A Thousand Pardons from being merely a contemporary introspection into the realities of this particular family, Dee centers the latter part of the book upon the action packed and unexpected events that transpire as a result of Helen’s career progression and the various people and places that she encounters along the way. This is where I started to lose a bit of interest, ironically – because although Things were finally happening, and the focus was for once away from Ben and Helen’s relationship, the Things (to me at least) seemed too unbelievable and ‘fictitious’ to really admire or get excited by. A man Helen used to know as a child, who just happens to be a famous movie star, suddenly gets into a compromising and dangerous situation and inexplicably ends up turning to Helen for help. This bugged me for two main reasons – one that he’d ignored and even forgotten about her existence for the first half of the book and yet we were suddenly expected to believe that she was the only one in the world who he could trust; and two that the situation he ended up in Just. Wasn’t. Credible. (I won’t give away spoilers, but it was really incredibly silly.)
I got the feeling that Dee was trying to make some sort of statement about the close relationship between the nature of public and private scandals, and how they’re dealt with, but although he managed the private part extremely well (Ben and Helen’s troubles were brilliantly portrayed) he fell short on making the public scandal match up in terms of quality. Helen’s new career and the situation with her movie star schoolfriend just didn’t feel realistic, and kind of ruined my immersion in and enjoyment of the book I’d had prior to this twist. I feel that A Thousand Pardons is trying extremely hard to make a statement about the nature of self-destruction, forgiveness and liberation, which it almost, almost manages, but in the end simply falls a bit short of its high-reaching goals. I was unsatisfied by the overall ending and although it began well and had a lot of promise, the story got a bit far-fetched and messy, and was not reconciled accordingly.
Overall, I felt I enjoyed the writing more than the actual story – with the snappy yet thoughtful prose and sharply observed identifiable truths it’s obvious that Jonathan Dee is a talented writer; yet I couldn’t help get the impression that there was a ‘point’ to A Thousand Pardons that I just didn’t get. Or maybe I’m trying to see a point that sadly wasn’t quite there.