Beginner's Greek by James Collins

Diane Leach

Though set in the present day, this story is resolutely old fashioned. We are free to focus on the characters as they worry about love, which interests them above all.

Beginner's Greek

Publisher: Little, Brown
Subtitle: A Novel
Author: James Collins
Price: $23.99
Length: 448
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 0316021555
US publication date: 2008-01

Beginner’s Greek, though set in the present day, is resolutely old fashioned. There are no cell phones, blueteeth, or text messages. People do not email one another or conduct online searches. The story -- of how Peter Russell and Holly Speedwell fall in love, are separated by various comedic mishaps, then finally find one another permanently -- transpires without mention of politics, presidents, or carbon footprints. We are free to focus on the characters as they worry about love, which interests them above all.

One doesn’t see many books like Collins’ anymore; they are terminally uncool, too long, too humanly interested in the domestic details. There are no blank pages, Marxist interpretations, or characters sharing the author’s name. There are no zombies or talking objects. Love is hopelessly unhip, after all, tattoo-free and hopeful, naïve and wishful.

Many critics have likened Collins to the late, great Laurie Colwin, and it’s clear Collins owes a great debt to her work, particularly 1978’s Happy All the Time (which also features a character named Holly) (Laurie Colwin, Harper Perennial Books). Colwin’s people, like Collins’ are also searching for perfect romantic love, or something close to it. Reading Collins is a little like getting a special hit of Colwin, who died in 1992, at age 48. Her fans (full disclosure: she is my favorite writer) are an obsessive, cultlike group who never recovered from her death. I suspect Collins is one of us.

Peter and Holly meet on a plane, hit it off, and part ways. Peter promptly loses Holly’s phone number, only to encounter her, years later, at the side of his best friend, writer Jonathan Speedwell. Jonathan is a monster, a handsome, successful writer who has no problem laying every girl in his path, the lovely Holly notwithstanding. Peter, meanwhile, having given up on ever finding the wonderful girl on the plane, is engaged to Charlotte Montague. Charlotte is terminally almost, almost pretty, almost socially skilled, almost chic -- but by dint of self-consciousness, just misses on every count. She is, as Jonathan observes, “a drag”, but her clumsy efforts at goodwill engender sympathy. You forgive her being annoying, because she’s trying so damned hard.

In both Happy All the Time and Beginner’s Greek. there is office grief: Guido must contend with the gorgeous yet hapless secretary Jane Motherwell until hiring the homely but efficient Betty Helen Carnhoops. Misty must contend with the idiotic Denton McKay, whose forays into her office bring her close to madness. Only Misty, unlike the affable Peter, is far more aggressive when threatened. When office politics endanger her position, she roars into McKay’s office and rips him apart. Peter, facing supervisor Gregg Thropp, is not so gutsy. Nor is he as resourceful, allowing Collins many Office Space moments culminating in delicious revenge. In this, Misty’s worklife, with it’s low pay and idiotic bosses, is far more realistic than Peter’s happy ending.

The book hinges on Peter’s mildness of character, symptomatic of his intractable kindness. He will never act on his passionate love for Holly because he cannot bear to hurt Charlotte. He will not defend himself against horrible Gregg Thropp lest he be mistaken for a whiner. He will not berate Jonathan even as he watches him wreak havoc.

Peter is saved from geekdom by two things: his good nature and love of hockey. Peter Russell is a diehard New Jersey Devils fan. I am married to a Canadian and watch enormous amounts of this sport, which is not for the faint of heart. The New Jersey Devils are a bunch of highly skilled thugs (and I mean that as a compliment.) Further, Peter plays hockey himself. No power yoga or spinning for this guy. So yes, he’s very nice, very gentle, until you really piss him off. Then he’ll clock your ass into the boards.

Peter and Holly are surrounded by characters in equally messy domestic circumstances: Charlotte’s father, the aptly-named Dick, and his younger wife, Julia, Holly’s father Graham, a moviemaker in Los Angeles, even the head of Peter’s company, the regal Arthur Beeche himself, a lonely widower lacking an heir to the family fortune.

Faced with their troubles, Julia, Arthur, Peter, and Holly do not go online seeking support groups, consult WebMd, consult Feng-shui masters, or reach for Ambien. Instead, they lie awake. They think. They worry. And we readers are privy to these late-night musings. How old-fashioned. How refreshing.

I admit I was surprised a man wrote this. Talk about reverse sexism! Guilty as charged. But how many straight men are as passionately attuned to domestic detail as Collins is? Can lovingly describe dresses, shoes, earrings, and hairstyles with the acuity of Anna Wintour? Collins is especially lavish around real estate, succumbing to the sort of apartment fixation impossible to escape if you live in New York.

Charlotte lives on the parlor floor on a brownstone, and subjects all visitors to an exhaustive and exhausting tour, right down to the gargoyles, which she imitates in most unflattering fashion. Her stepmother Julia forever laments the many exquisite objects owned by her grandmother -- priceless side tables, paintings, rugs, and vases -- that are sold off by her greedy children after her death. Jonathan Speedwell inhabits a hotel apartment inherited -- and paid for -- by his mother, allowing him to keep his former, smaller place for writing and other extracurricular acts. Once he is out of the picture (I don’t want to give away anything here), Holly inhabits a grand old apartment on Central Park West belonging to an absent aunt. There is a library, and an old-fashioned bath with a “crazy porcelain” bottom. There are closets filled with gorgeous vintage dresses and jewelry that will come in handy later.

Food, naturally, has its role. Julia escapes Dick to their home in France, where housekeeper Mme. Gorotiaga plies her with fresh bread, butter, and jam. Holly cooks, but not well, wending her way sweetly, yet nervously, through a bag of expensive, chic ingredients brought to Peter and Charlotte’s house for dinner. Charlotte cannot cook at all, but is fanatic about preparing tea properly. A dinner at Arthur Beeche’s mansion is an exercise in perfect correctness: homard aux aromates, gigot de pré-salé braise.

Holly and Peter pine for each other throughout; at every moment fate throws up an obstacle to their love. Amusing as this can be, it also creates problems with the book. It’s a little too long, for one thing: the suspense, while pleasantly unbearable, could end about 100 pages sooner. Instead the plot hurdles become increasingly unrealistic, even for a comedy of manners. Peter is such a nice man that it’s difficult to understand his friendship with the morally bankrupt Jonathan. And Holly is a little too perfect. The best Collins can do is make her slightly less than physically perfect -- this honor goes to Miss Isabella Echevarria de Sena, a South American of carnal beauty whose presence is a deux ex machina. And even this slightly-less-than-exquisite is Holly far, far better than most of us -- long, slender hands and feet, tall, thin body, naturally blond. Her personality is a symphony of sweetness; she charms the birds from the trees. Never once is she irritable, snappish, or suffering from PMS.

Then there is the extremely unpopular business of the happy ending. I am not speaking here of romance novels, catering as they do to a specific fantasy. I am speaking here of literature (genre alert! warning!) a place where serious writers ply their trade along a narrowing tail in an obviously terrible world which becomes more terrible with every passing moment. Even love cannot salve the least, I don’t think so, and I’ve been happily married for 15 years. This is what makes Collins’ book such a treat. How very brave of him to buck the black tide, the darkness that (rightfully, perhaps) pervades our lives and literatures. Colwin was also rather alone in bucking the negative trend -- I remember reading somewhere that, disgusted with the all-black look pervading '80s New York fashion, she cultivated stripes and polka dots, a fact corroborated in the few images I’ve seen of her.

So. It takes true guts, I think, to write something like Beginner’s Greek in today’s relentlessly ironic, ADD market. It takes age, as well: one has to have seen the world and its workings, been both in and out of love, before writing so well about it.

“’What are we going to drink to?’ said Holly. ‘We always end up doing that too.’

‘To friendship,’ said Vincent.

They drank to that.

‘Now what?’ said Guido. ‘We have to drink to something else.’

‘Okay,’ said Misty. ‘Let’s drink to a truly wonderful life.’

They raised their glasses and, by the light of the candles, they drank to a truly wonderful life." -- Happy all the Time

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