Published by Little, Brown and Company
Review by W. R. Greer
James Collins' Beginner's Greek begins with protagonist Peter Russell boarding a plane bound for Los Angeles. He's always been sure that he'd meet the love of his life on an airplane. He's still a young man in his twenties, a bit naive and admittedly shy around women. He watches each person board the plane to see who will be sitting next to him. He's about to give up when one of the last passengers to board takes that seat. She's a beautiful young woman and Peter can hardly bring himself to speak to her, and he's relieved when she initiates the conversation. Peter and Holly share a enchanted flight to Los Angeles together, comfortable in each other's presence, deeply attracted to each other, and unwilling to let their time together end. She tears a page out of her book and writes down the phone number where she'll be staying with her family. Peter puts it in his shirt pocket for safekeeping. They part ways after the baggage claim, and Peter can't get her out of his mind. When he gets to his hotel, he reaches into his shirt pocket for the phone number, his ticket to happiness ever after. And it's nowhere to be found.
Even if you didn't read this review or the jacket blurb that tells you he's going to lose her number, you know it's going to happen. It's such a wonderful setup for the rest of the novel. Peter loves Holly and Holly loves Peter, yet fate and extenuating circumstances conspire to keep them apart. The rest of the novel is set a decade or more after the day they shared the plane flight. Holly has come back into Peter's life, but she's married to his best friend, Jonathan Speedwell. Peter has a love/hate relationship with Jonathan. Jonathan is one of those men whom the fates have favored. His good looks, easy charm, and success as a writer makes women salivate over him, and he often takes advantage of the opportunities that presents. Peter knows of his philandering, but he'd never tell Holly about it. Nothing good can come from being the bearer of bad news. Peter often spends time with the couple, or alone with Holly when Jonathan is away, but he never crosses the friendship boundary and he's sure that Holly has neither forgiven him for never calling her after the plane flight nor does she feel the same way he does.
Further complicating the possibilities for Peter and Holly to ever be lovers is that Peter is getting married too. He's engaged to Charlotte, and while they care for each other and love each other in some way, both Charlotte and he realize that they're not in love with each other. They're in their thirties, though, from the same social stratum, and get along well with each other, so it's time to get married. Besides, Peter keeps telling himself, Holly is off limits forever.
For the first third of Beginner's Greek, James Collins plays a mischievous god to his characters. He takes this endless love that Peter and Holly have for each other, refuses to let them tell each other about it, and dangles circumstances that bring them together and then push them apart. To tell any more of the plot line would ruin the surprises, but the comedy comes from watching the circumstances unfold and read in fascinated disbelief at the next unusual plot device. I read this part of the novel in permanent chuckle mode, savoring the tricks and turns that complicate Peter's and Holly's unfulfilled love for each other. To make Peter's life even more torturous, his so-far successful career at an old-money Wall Street investment firm threatens to come undone. Not only does he now work for the boss from hell who wants to destroy him, but he's given an assignment to work for the firm's unhinged and ignored lunatic who has a plan to make cereal box tops the new currency.
The last two-thirds of the novel don't quite live up to the promise of the early part of the novel, but it's not a huge letdown. James Collins strays from letting his omniscient narrator telling Peter's story to telling the story through other characters, including Arthur Beeche (the abundantly wealthy owner of the investment company), Charlotte's father and his younger trophy wife, and even occasionally from Holly herself. While this is necessary to move the plot forward where it doesn't directly revolve around Peter, these parts of the novel always take a back seat to Peter's sections. Much of the novel is told by internal monologue from the different characters. When this works well, James Collins mixes in each character's perspective and understanding, or misunderstanding as the case may be, of the events as they unfold. He also hits on insights into life and love, little bits of surprising revelations that should have seemed obvious. Other times, though, these internal monologues carry on without moving the plot forward in any direction.
Beginner's Greek also suffers some typical first-novel weaknesses. Outside of Peter's evil boss and Charlotte's father, almost everybody else in the novel is a wonderful guy or a beautiful, sensitive woman. While at times it contributes to the love story glow, some complexity of character would have been an improvement. The same type of problem occurs with the dialogue. Characters sound alike, they're often too witty for their own good, and they tend to break off into quasi-philosophical treatises about life and love. With their wealthy lifestyle, lavish dinner parties, and country homes, it's hard to develop some sympathy for characters whose only problem is whom they might fall in love with on that day.
Peter, though, is the catalyst for this novel, and his struggle to do the right thing and behave the correct way often gets in the way of his own happiness. When James Collins is moving the novel through Peter's actions and frustrations, the romantic comedy skips along its merry path. For the most part, Beginner's Greek is an enjoyable romp of the heart and mind. It's not completely believable, but that's not necessary. It's about love, true love, and how it can overcome all obstacles. That's what we all want to believe in. Right? Well, at least it's true in Beginner's Greek and we should enjoy it while we can.
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