“A Thousand Pardons,” Jonathan Dee, Random House, $26
“People are quick to judge,” Helen Armstead, one of the protagonists of Jonathan Dee’s new novel, “A Thousand Pardons,” tells a client. “[T]hey are quick to condemn, but that’s mostly because their ultimate desire is to forgive.”
Helen appears to be drawing from personal experience: Her husband, Ben, is an erstwhile trusts and estates lawyer who catastrophically ends his career when he becomes involved with a young summer associate and gets a DUI. In the wake of their separation, Helen stumbles into a job with a small public relations firm. Her consistent -- and ultimately successful -- advice to her scandal-plagued clients: abject apologies.
An apology, it seems, is something she never received from Ben. Before the marriage falls apart, Ben claims -- during a couple’s counseling session passed off as “date night” to their daughter Sara -- that he is “literally terrified” at his ennui. “I have lived the day to come already,” he says. Self-destructive, Ben relies on the scandal as a way of seeking a position of shame from which he ultimately can find forgiveness.
For many novels, Ben’s breakdown would be the climax; instead, it is the book’s jumping-off point. Dee is an acclaimed six-time novelist whose last effort, 2010’s “The Privileges,” about a young wealthy couple, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. This novel lacks much of that one’s punch; thanks to a strong opening, however, it manages to feel much quicker than its already-slim 224 pages. Shifting often in point of view, the story charts the détente of Ben and Helen. In examining how complicated reconciliation can be, the novel hits some similar notes to Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” -- although that book, with so much more verve, was in all ways superior.
Working in PR, Helen grows to understand that “it wasn’t just about what you said to the world, it was about what was in your heart when you were saying it.” She and Ben prove it sometimes can be quite an effort to get the two in sync.