A THOUSAND PARDONS by Jonathan Dee, Book Review

A Thousand Pardons Synopsis

A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee

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 Ben, a partner in a prestigious law firm, has become unpredictable at work and withdrawn at home—a change that weighs heavily on his wife, Helen, and their preteen daughter, Sara.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 behaviour, Helen must face the limits of accountability and her own capacity for forgiveness. (Amazon)


I am very selective about which titles I start reading because I know I have a ‘completer finisher’ personality. It goes against my nature to not finish reading a title, even when it is lack lustre – you never know, it could all come together beautifully in the conclusion, right? I got it wrong in respect to A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee.

A Thousand Pardons explores the different ways people apologise for things, and their different motivations for doing so. That premise itself intrigued me. What caused my interest to wane was that almost every character in this novel perpetrated self-destructive or at the very least self-limiting behaviour. They predominantly had negative outlooks, or ‘chips on their shoulders’, not taking responsibility for their own actions – a pet peeve of mine. Even when they apologised, it was an ‘act’ of sincerity for subsequent personal gain, rather than any real ownership of blame.

So I suppose you could say that what occurred in A Thousand Pardons clashed with my personal ideologies. But, that in itself should not necessarily have lessened the success of the novel for me. For example, the protagonist in a novel I recently reviewed, The Trajectory of Dreams, does things I consider unspeakable, yet I awarded that work 4.75 stars.

One of the key problems was that I was unable to identify with or empathise with any of the characters. It felt like the author held them at arms length from his audience, just as the characters themselves held the people in their lives at arms length. If this was an intentional act by the author, I suggest it was a risky path to take.

The story itself was quite linear and told in very straight prose, in my opinion lacking artistic flair. Some clinical attempts at literary flourish popped up rather awkwardly on occasion though.

So spectacular was her failure that the mushroom cloud over her happy home environment was featured in the newspaper everyday for a week, not just at home in Rensselaer Valley, where there was never much going on, but even in Manhattan, where the destruction of some rich Brahmin at the hands of his own perverse compulsions was always a tabloid chestnut.

The prose was what I would categorise as competent, but not compelling.

But the most significant issue for me was that while many promising characters and story threads were introduced by Jonathan Dee in A Thousand Pardons, their potential failed to be realised. Unsatisfying conclusions of almost all story threads, with at best characters finding contentment in mediocrity, left me feeling short changed.

I had expected more than this rather pedestrian offering from much lauded author Jonathan Dee.

BOOK RATING: The Story 2 / 5 ; The Writing 2.5 / 5  –  Overall 2.25

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BOOK DETAILS: A Thousand Pardons (Amazon); A Thousand Pardons (Kobobooks)

Genre: Drama

Author Information: Jonathan Dee is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, a frequent contributor to Harper’s, and a former senior editor of The Paris Review. He teaches in the graduate writing programmes at Columbia University and The New School.

Other reviews of A Thousand Pardons: Washington Post, Lovell Lens, Boston Globe, NomadReader, TheMillions

* Receiving this title free from Random House via NetGalley did not impact my ability to express my honest opinions in the review above.