September 03, 2008

BOOKS: Beginner's Greek, James Collins (2008)

Peter is the sort of hopeless romantic who has always believed that he will meet his true love in some unlikely way, and fall for her in an instant. Every time he gets onto an airplane, some small part of thinks that this is where he'll meet her; she'll sit next to him, they'll strike up a conversation, and by the end of the flight, they'll know it's meant to be.

So when Holly takes the seat next to Peter and they find themselves deep in conversation about their careers, their lives, the book she's reading (The Magic Mountain), he knows that fate has struck. He leaves the plane with her phone number and promises to call her for dinner before he goes back to New York. Alas, when he gets to his hotel, he has lost the paper with her number on it. Fate has been unkind, and it seems unlikely that Peter will ever be reunited with Holly, the perfect woman of his most romantic dreams.

That is the set up for Collins' delightful romantic comedy of second chances and magnificent coincidence, in which we follow Peter and Holly (who do, of course, eventually meet again) as they struggle to overcome the assorted obstacles that life throws in their way -- her husband and his wife chief among them.

I don't read a lot of romantic comedy, but in my limited experience, it's unusual to have this sort of story told from the male point of view (or by a male author, for that matter). That's not to suggest that Peter's is the only point of view -- all of the major characters, and several of the minor ones, get their turn at center stage -- but he is, I think, the principal player here.

Collins' writing is a joy to read, filled with long, flowing paragraphs of dry wit and sparkling insight into the way people think and behave when they're in love. His characters are distinctive and memorable, and they are, on the whole, splendidly decent people; each one seeks his or her own happiness, but none of them wish to find it at the expense of their friends or colleagues. It's a novel in which everyone is trying desperately to do the right thing.

I was reminded at times of Elinor Lipman, another intensely humane author with great insight into the way we behave, and while I am not a fan of Jane Austen, I suspect that her devotees might also enjoy this novel immensely.

I have minor quibbles, to be sure. There are a few too many spectacular coincidences and events that happen at precisely the necessary moment to drive the plot. And it seems unlikely that these 21st-century New Yorkers would have not one gay friend or relationship among them; the novel's sole mention of homosexuality is as the punchline to a bad mistaken identity joke.

But they are minor quibbles, indeed. Beginner's Greek is a delightful novel, and even if you can see the happy ending coming a mile away, it's great fun watching as Collins devises more and cleverer ways to put it off just a little longer.

No comments: