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James Collins, a former editor with Spy and Time magazines, has recently published his first novel, the gentle urban romance Beginner's Greek. Taking place in a New York City that seems mostly of the present era, but miraculously without cell phones, an Internet, or other accoutrements of modern life, Beginner's Greek is a story of lovers, both young and middle-aged, who pursue the objects of their desires with the sort of calm detachment that suggests they have little doubt about love's inevitable success.
Like the male protagonist in Alain de Botton's comic philosophical fiction, On Love, Collins's young hero has a strong belief in destiny when it comes to love, and an even stronger certainty that destiny will work its magic through the random seat assignments of major airlines. Unlike de Botton's introspective and angst-ridden intellectual, though, Collins's blandly pleasant Peter Russell does not analyze. He just expects. He expects that he will meet a beautiful woman on the plane from New York to Los Angeles, and that he will fall in love with her and live happily ever after.
And so he does, after some 440 pages of mild obstacles, which fall away as circumstances require. The main obstacle to Peter's ideal match, and to those of the other characters, seems to be that most people are already married, and to the wrong people. But fortunately for everyone, there is little moral stigma or personal anguish over the undoing of vows, so characters are free to realign as they choose.
Any tensions that arise as these attractive and comfortable people meander toward their fates is very mild. Will Peter's career be destroyed by the evil boss who hates him? Probably not. Will Julia, the ultimate second wife, be able to shed a wealthy husband she has tired of and find another one fast enough that she doesn't have to go without expensive things for very long? Sure. Will Peter be reunited with the woman he loves from the beginning? But of course.
If the characters have little psychological depth, it is because they don't need to. Collins has invented a world in which everything is going to be all right; and that sense is so strong, all the way through, that minor setbacks like becoming impregnated by someone else's husband, getting involved in a financial scheme invented by Rocky and Bullwinkle, having your inheritance embezzled--all are clothed in the confidence of sure recovery.
Although some have compared Collins to Jane Austen, he does not have her gift for worrying a reader sick while heading for the obvious resolution. One can read Pride and Prejudice every year (or watch one of the outstanding film versions any evening) and never quite calm down. Will Jane Bennett make an appropriate match? (And how is it that one can use the word "appropriate" in discussing unbearable suspense?) Will Lydia's reputation be saved? Most important, will Elizabeth end up having her extraordinary brain and her powerful lust satisfied for all eternity? Yes, yes, and yes! The reader collapses in relief and joy, having miraculously put herself into the tiny, impractical shoes of these nineteenth century drawing- room-sitters and their frantic mother.
It is not so easy for mortals to identify with the characters of Beginner's Greek. This is a world in which everyone has a large apartment in New York City and some also have a house in France, or many houses around the world. Bad people lose their jobs and their wives; charmingly bad people get laid a lot and then go out in a spectacular flash. Good people are rewarded with several marriages, all of them advantageous in one way or another. Little effort is expended to achieve any of this. Although Peter works for a prestigious Wall Street firm, he has so much free time it feels as though his greatest stress must be boredom.
In contrast to the heroine of a genre romance, Collins's leading lady doesn't triumph over tremendous odds by the sheer force of her pluck. Holly, the object of Peter's leisurely quest, is not a fairytale princess whose unearthly beauty or astonishing brilliance belie her apparently low birth and enable her to achieve greatness. No, Holly is born with plenty of money and self-esteem, to a lovely distracted mother and a successful Hollywood director father. She is very pretty but not beautiful. She looks quite nice when she puts on an expensive gown and has her hair done (which could also be said of many well-funded twenty-somethings). She likes Thomas Mann, but not too much. (Don't worry! Our heroine is not a nerd!) She has a career, but with summers off. She marries a handsome prince, yes . . . but when he dies, no major inconveniences ensue.
That Holly and Peter are meant for each other may be evidenced by the fact that a reader needs dialogue tags to know which of them is talking. They are both pleasant and inoffensive and everyone seems to like them. Neither has what might be called a strong personality.
Effort is the villain in this book. Anyone who says, "What do you mean, he lost her phone number and just gave up? Why didn't he advertise on 'Missed Connections'?" or "There's a potentially disastrous misunderstanding at the office? Well, why don't you talk to somebody and clear it up, then?" would be advised to think first of Charlotte and quiet down. Charlotte is Peter's first wife, a striving young woman who has a career she's passionate about and works very hard at, a strong desire to better herself intellectually and sartorially, an interest in art and language and travel and diplomacy . . .and the ridicule of all the other characters. Like Tolstoy's Vera, the unhappy elder sister to War and Peace's darling, Natasha, Charlotte seems to have been created only to be looked down upon. One wants to protect these women from the cruelty of their creators. What's so terrible about caring about your work?
Romance novels have historically been the realm of women. Women write them, read them, publish them, promote them, and rush to the stores to buy them. A 2002 study by the Romance Writers of America determined that 93% of romance readers were female. Maybe this is what happens when a male writer wanders into that world. The message changes from, "Throw caution to the wind and rip off your complicated, inconvenient gown in the name of love!" to "Relax. Everything will be fine. There's no need for you to do anything. Would you like Thai food delivered or are you just turning in early?"
All of this excessive calm makes for a pleasant read. Collins's style is smooth, literate, and unhurried. He indulges in a teasingly upscale vocabulary that lends an air of gentility to the proceedings. ("Her philtrum rhymed with the shallow cleft of her chin," "Charlotte expressed keen . . .interest in the fate of the espaliered pear trees.")
And he treats us to the occasional lovely metaphor. Of the first conversation between the two young lovers, he explains, "They would talk for a time and then once again fall into a friendly, active silence. As in a painting, the negative space counted." Of an estranged family forced into each other's company: "Of course, it was often difficult dealing with his ex-wife, and an occasion like this wedding--the first of any of their children--meant they had to reconstitute the family like some ersatz beef product."
And to some intriguing and original observations, like this one: "He didn't feel the incredible excitement mixed with terror that one succumbs to when anticipating the possibility of sleeping with a woman for the first time. He felt desirous, infatuated, stimulated but not agitated--as if he were anticipating sleeping with a woman for the second time." Like the wise philanthropic foundation that supports second performances of new classical compositions, Collins's narrator recognizes the rare value of the second. Just as it's relatively easy to find support for the performance of a world premiere or of a much-loved classic piece, so we celebrate the value and/or the thrill of love at first sight, one-night stands, and long-term relationships, but one rarely hears of the exquisite two-night stand or the special joy of a second meeting, and yet those can be realities of life as well--sometimes richer and more interesting than the burst of excitement that accompanies the first.
Much of Beginner's Greek is told in the past perfect, further protecting the reader from any headlong rushes into action. Characters muse about what they "had said" or "had felt," and the time, in the distant past, when they "had driven together to visit a friend" and the trip "had been very difficult" and "members of the group had held sharply divergent opinions . . ." An occasional slip suggests that even more of the book may have been written that way in a previous draft. (At one point, Peter and Charlotte are talking in the present, but the narrator tells us, "Charlotte had sat on the love seat.")
For those who shun excess drama and like their passion contained, dignified, and described with elegance, Beginner's Greek is an ideal summer read. It will neither tax nor offend, and will most likely bring the reader some of the same calm pleasure that Charlotte feels when she looks at her precious heirloom painting, or Mrs. Beeche when she meets a young man who appreciates French opera, or Jonathan when he effortlessly seduces yet another editorial assistant.
© 2008 First Serial Rights. Heather Liston
Heather Liston is a free lance writer based in San Francisco