So there I was, on a flight home for the holidays, hoping to sit next to the perfect seatmate: someone who would let me quietly tear into veteran journalist James Collins' debut novel, a romantic comedy with a satiric bent, blurbed as a worthy successor to Jane Austen.
As the novel opens, Peter Russell is on a transcontinental flight and hoping for a perfect seatmate: his soulmate.
This is the slender charm of the first pages of "Beginner's Greek," which is not about learning a dead language. Peter does meet someone, a vision of perfection by the name of Holly. They spend five perfect hours together, at the end of which time Holly gives Peter her phone number and hopes sweetly to see him again. Peter proceeds to lose Holly's number and immediately concludes that he will never see her again.
A near-miss makes for an intriguing story, as the reader knows that the protagonists will inevitably reintersect, weave away from each other, then unite at the end of the journey. How this delicate dance plays out makes or breaks a romantic novel, especially one compared to the venerable Miss Austen.
Mr. Collins, you're no Jane Austen.
There is some fun in this novel, though to enjoy it you can't be picky about craft: pacing, dialogue, characterization, verisimilitude.
First, there is Peter, a 20-something Wall Street proto-yupster who is such a passive lovelorn that he makes my stuffed hippopotamus look like Don Juan. Always one scruple away from telling Holly he loves her, even after principal impediments to their union are swept away in a flurry of fated coincidences, by page 400 of 441 he is at square one.
Consider also Max McClernand, Peter's deranged co-worker, who has a plan to make a fortune for their firm by trading cereal box tops like foreign currency.
Or Jonathan Speedwell, Peter's best friend, an author who exploits the New York literary scene for sexual conquests, and who gets his comeuppance by -- well, it is a shocking moment.
Then there is Peter's neurotic wife Charlotte, whom he marries after he reconnects with Holly, who has since married Jonathan, the cad, who -- well, you know the drill.
Charlotte, hopelessly in love with a French baronial "royalist" named Maximilien-Francois-Marie-Isidore, seems the most sympathetic character, perhaps because Collins betrays an infatuation with France. Many of the characters speak the language fluently, and untranslated French crops up.
With everyone in love with everyone else, much bed-swapping going on, and over-the-top characters such as McClernand entering and exiting at random, the reader begins to wonder if Collins isn't trying on purpose to write junk -- especially after the 25-page stand-alone section in which Peter attends a dinner party with Holly, only to be separated from her and spend the rest of the evening being brilliant with famous, fictitious people ("Jack Thorndale was a legend as a sportsman and adventurer"). It is here where he is able to recite the poem by James Merrill for which the book is named, to the Nobel Prize-winning (Greek) poet at his table.
"Beginner's Greek" is reminiscent not of Austen but perhaps Rosamunde Pilcher, with movie adaptation written all over it. For the pickier, passages like these will detract from the enjoyment:
"Over the mantel hung a medium-sized landscape painted in a postimpressionist style -- hills, houses, grass, trees, sky, clouds (a couple of very beautiful clouds). The setting was, a viewer could guess, the South of France."
It's clear the author has never seen this painting. Jane Austen's work, on the other hand, is marked by her love of the particular -- whether in her meticulously drawn characters or finely observed, created world.
"Beginner's Greek" is a good start on a finished novel.