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15th June
written by Steph
Not all Greek to me!

Not all Greek to me!

Since the weather has finally gotten consistently warm here in Nashville, I’ve been wanting to take advantage of the fact that our building has a pool and do some tanning and swimming.  I’ve talked fleetingly of my search for appropriate “pool reads” (and I’ll probably be posting more about that in the future… so stay tuned), which it turns out is a pretty perilous proposition.  You need a book that isn’t too dense, since lazing about in the sun can make the mind sluggish, but it’s important the book be engaging and not vapid, because otherwise there’s no incentive to read instead of getting into the pool.  After a little bit of soul searching, I settled on Beginner's Greek (Great Expectations by Charles Dickens doesn’t seem quite right for the summer, does it?  Don’t all those moors evoke Autumn to you?), which turned out to be a great choice. Billed as a modern-day Jane Austen novel (or chick lit written by a man), Beginner's Greek revolves around Peter Russell who is a romantic at heart and is waiting to find his true love.  He tells us that whenever he gets on a plane, he really believes that this will be the trip where he is seated next to a beautiful woman with whom he will fall hopelessly in love.  Lo and behold, on a cross-country trip from New York to L.A. Peter finds himself across the aisle from Holly, a beautiful and charismatic young lady and it seems the two form a magnetic attachment.  She gives him her number and tells him to call her while he’s in town, and he vows to do so… only to lose the paper on which her number is written and with no other way of tracking her down (you see, she never told him her last name).  The rest of the novel then chronicles the ups and downs of Peter & Holly’s lives (as well as the people who orbit around them) as they try to make their way back to one another. I realize that that little summary makes this book sound totally cliché and like your typical summer rom-com movie aimed at the half of the population with ovaries… and to some extent, this book IS exactly that.  Parts of it are completely predictable to those of us who have every seen one of the aforementioned movies, but other parts of it were not!  I don’t think it’s unfair to say that this book was very much like an upper-eastside Manhattan soap opera at times what with all the adultery and money and stock & bond trading… but what do I know?  Maybe that really is what it’s like in Manhattan.  Nevertheless, as much as you know how this book has to end (trust me you do), there are enough little clever twists along the way (at least early on) that keep things interesting and pretty funny too.  True, by the end, things begin to drag a little because you just want Peter & Holly to get it together and get together, and it’s frustrating when the only things standing in their way is, well, themselves, because they’re just standing there doing nothing, but maybe this kind of thing happens a good deal in real life too. It’s hard for me to put my finger on exactly what about this book had that I responded to so well, because there were things about it that did bug me, but overall I really enjoyed it.  True, Collins writes about a class of people I do not know, and many of the characters are foolish or just plain sleazy, and I just could not understand certain people’s motivations whatsoever, but somehow he makes everything work.  I’ve said before that I am incapable of passing up books that compare the authors to Austen, and inevitably I find the comparison comes up short.  Here, while I wouldn’t say the comparison is spot on, it is probably the closest I have encountered.  The social analyses, the fact that Collins writes tenderly about certain characters but picks fun of others, there is certainly an Austen-esque vibe to the storytelling.  It’s not a carbon copy, but perhaps that is why I feel it is more successful than other books that seem to be trying to replicate her works, rather than embracing the spirit and incorporating elements of her writing and perspective, but ultimately creating something new that stands on its own.  I feel like Collins is pretty successful at this.  He doesn’t necessarily nail the part where his own novel shines with some of Austen’s star heroines and characters – Peter Russell is no Mr. Darcy (he’s kind of more like the foppish Henry Tilney), nor is Holly Lizzie Bennett, but looking back, he populates his novel with the Elinor Dashwoods, Lucy Steeles, and Willoughbys to great effect.    The characters I disliked, I was meant to dislike.  I only wish he could have had Beginner's Greek feature two leads who were not quite so lukewarm; I never really felt very passionately about either Peter or Holly.  I didn’t root against them or find them objectionable in any major ways, but I didn’t find them particularly charismatic or with any real spark… so I didn’t root FOR them either, exactly. I will say that I did like the writing a good deal.  It can get annoyingly highbrow at times (a tad pretentious), and a few times Collins used turns of phrase that made me wonder if he wasn’t actually an American and I was therefore jarred from the story and added to the "kind of pretentious" current (he is, so I’m not sure why he referred to Peter’s good friend Jonthan as his “mate”… that’s a very English thing to do), but largely it was very good and very enjoyable.  For a summery pool read, I didn’t feel as though the writing was disposable or that my IQ was gradually plummeting as I turned the pages.  More often than not, I found Collins’s writing to be smart and funny, and I even marked a few passages because I enjoyed them so much.  I know!  I pretty much NEVER do that!  He wrote this wonderful paragraph in which he describes the evening ritual of one character, and it pretty much sums up my idea of heaven (is it any wonder it is set in the south of France?):
She watched the sunset.  Then after a supper of cassoulet or roast chicken or fish in one of Mme. Gorotiaga’s buttery sauces, she got into bed with a novel and a hot water bottle.  It might be only nine o’clock.  She kept a small fire for a while and lay in bed drinking a last glass of wine and read.
Sigh.  Heaven. Anyway, Beginner's Greek was a really great first novel, in my opinion.  Not perfect, and there are a few kinks, but overall very enjoyable.  Great for reading at the beach or on the bus or curled up on the couch.  I found it quite transportive, fluffy but substantial all at once.  After reading this one, I returned it to the shelf, rather than placing it in my “sell” bag, which I think must say something about how much I liked it.  Moreover, when Collins writes another novel, I’ll certainly be sure to read it. One other snippet I really liked:
The past!  The past!  Do we stride before it, trailing it behind?  No.   It pushes us inexorably forward, like a glacier, into the present.
Rating: 4 out of 5


  1. 06/15/2009

    The minute I saw this book at the store yesterday, I labeled it chick lit in my head. But, it appeals to me because it romance in the airplane. That it’s a sugar-coated Austen type of story makes it even more appealing to me. I’m not usually a fan of this type of book, but it’s too good to pass it, at least I can read it when I’m in LA this weekend.

  2. 06/15/2009

    It sounds really enjoyable. After all the great work you did with your review, you what got me. The description of the food!

  3. 06/16/2009

    I will have to keep an eye out for this one – I’m just like you, can’t resist anything even slighty connected to Austen! I’m a marketing person’s dream!

  4. 06/16/2009

    @ Matt: too bad you’re not flying from NY to LA – that would be serendipitous reading indeed! There is definitely a “dated” vibe to the story – it feels like old-fashioned storytelling, even if there are some modern concerns. I think if you keep that in mind, you’re likely to enjoy it!
    @ Nicole: I know! Isn’t that description marvelous? It was moments like that that really made the book something special for me.
    @ Karen: Yes, the love of Austen is a marketer’s dream, because they could be totally off-base (“This Sue Grafton novel is positively Austen-esque”) and I’d still try it just in case! Normally I am let down by the comparison, but this time it was actually pretty apt!

  5. 06/17/2009

    This book sounds like a really great light read. I had not heard much about it, but I really liked your review and am thinking that it might make a perfect summer read. I also like that it is a tad of Austin influences. Great review!

  6. 06/17/2009

    @ zibilee: It was a light read, with the caveat that the writing can provoke some bouts of mulling things over because there were parts that were written remarkably well. I think I wouldn’t have been aware of this book were it not for the book blogging world, but I’m really glad I did hear about it because I enjoyed it a good deal! And I was surprised to find the Austen comparisons were pretty solid in this case – pleasantly surprised, but surprised nonetheless! 😉

  7. […] books as No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym (who has been called the Jane Austen of her day), Beginner’s Greek by James Collins (the book evoked a sense of Jane Austen), The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler […]

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