“Beginner’s Greek,” the debut novel from journalist James Collins, has been compared — both in its jacket copy and in early press coverage — to the novels of Jane Austen. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: Mr. Collins, you are no Jane Austen.
At first glance, “Beginner’s Greek” seems like perfect Valentine’s weekend reading, whether or not you had a date last night. It promises to be a savage and funny satire of the dating and mating habits of upper-crust New York society. But jokes aside, there’s never a doubt that the protagonists, Peter and Holly, will end up together in perfect felicity.
The couple meets in the first chapter of the book when they are serendipitously seated next to one another on an airplane. (Of course, even before she sits down, Peter is convinced that his seatmate will be the woman he is to marry.) They hit it off when Holly pulls out a copy of Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain”; when they part at the baggage claim, she scrawls her phone number on the book’s title page and gives it to Peter. For a brief moment, the novel seems to be headed to “happily ever after” before it even reaches chapter two.
But in a plot device nearly stolen from the movie “Serendipity,” Peter loses the title page. What? There was a hole in that pocket?
Love at first sight notwithstanding, Peter is far too much of a wet blanket to actually do anything to try to find her. (Here’s a suggestion — call the airline! Then I wouldn’t have had to waste three days of my life reading the rest of the book.) Instead, he lets her go and throws himself back into his work for a prestigious, fictional investment bank.
Then, in the first of several abrupt — and unsignaled — jumps forward in time, Peter is dating the deathly-dull Charlotte. And surprise! — Holly is back in his life, this time as the wife of his caddish best friend Jonathan. Oops.
The rest of the novel plays out in a series of utterly unconvincing plot twists, including a preposterous death by lightning strike that comes close to happening in flagrante delicto. A happy ending is guaranteed from the outset, but Collins still needs a deus ex machina or three to get his couple to the altar.
Yet Collins’ real crime is not the obviousness of his conclusion. After all, what reader of “Pride and Prejudice” doubts that Elizabeth will eventually get her Mr. Darcy? But “Beginner’s Greek” displays such a deaf ear for dialogue that its characters are merely farcical — and not in the good way, either.
You can almost choose a page at random and find a clunker, but this is one of my favorites. It’s taken from the end of the book (violating the reviewers-shouldn’t-give-away-the-end rule, I suppose), when Peter finally confesses his love for Holly: “Holly, I’ve wanted to tell you something for a long time. For a very long time. What I’ve wanted to say is that I’m in love with you. I am completely in love with you. I am passionately, hopelessly, totally in love with you.”
Swoon. Or not.
Even Darcy’s haughty first proposal is more appealing than that: “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
Obvious condescension aside, we forgive him his use of the word “admire” for the feeling that clearly underlies his speech. That believable emotion is utterly lacking in Collins’ novel, which also fails to live up to its billing as an incisive satire.
Stay away from “Beginner’s Greek,” save your $23.99 and go read “Pride and Prejudice” (or even rent “Serendipity”) instead.