BEGINNER’S GREEK by James Collins

Book Quote:

“In fact, when seeking your own romantic happiness, causing others pain actually gave you a badge of honor. It showed that you were tough enough to do what was necessary for the higher goal – – your own fulfillment. No one respects a war leader who goes all soft over civilian casualties, and no one respects a lover who hesitates to pursue his beloved for fear of hurting someone else. In both cases, ruthlessly doing what has to be done earns you credit.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Bonnie Brody (AUG 16, 2009)

This is a novel that is much more complex than it appears to be on the surface. On the surface, it is a comedy of errors, a love story gone wrong. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, events intervene preventing their relationship from becoming requited. Yet the Fates intercede and somehow, as in a Greek play, we listen to the Muses from the sidelines as they let the reader know all of the great things and minutiae that occur every step of the way in this couple’s journey back and forth and sideways from one another. The author treats his readers as intelligent and informed adults. No part of this novel is dumbed down. It is intelligent and high-brow. It is literate and eloquent.

We are the reader as muse, sitting in the background, participating in the novel every step of the way. I felt like this book was a cross between Mighty Aphrodite, Pride and Prejudice and a Greek theater piece. I was riveted. I laughed, I frowned, I shook my head. How could so many things go wrong in what is supposed to be a simple love story? Oh, I forgot, the story is far from simple.

Peter meets Holly on a plane ride cross country. He always believed that he’d meet the woman of his dreams on a plane. It is love at first sight. Holly gives Peter her phone number and Peter loses the piece of paper that it is written on. He never stops thinking about her and vice versa. Years later their paths cross again when Peter’s best friend Jonathon marries Holly. The fun, chaos, thrill ride, tears and laughter begin here. This is a love story like nothing you have ever read before. It is a literary achievement of grand proportions. It is epic in its scope.

Jonathon is a cad but Holly seems oblivious to this. Peter is like the prototypical “good boy.” He does not tell Holly about Jonathon’s escapades and for some reason, he appears to accept Jonathon’s behavior. It’s hard to understand why he chooses Jonathon as a friend. Peter works hard for a boss who is just a few steps short of being Hanibal Lector. Despite this, Peter works hard and is loyal to his firm. Peter decides that if he can’t have Holly he’ll marry someone else and settles on Charlotte who he thinks he can be happy enough with though he is not really in love with her. She, too, appears to be settling on Peter. The cast of characters include all the wedding guests from Peter and Charlotte’s wedding, especially Charlotte’s family. There is Charlotte’s father, the narcissistic businessman who is married to the trophy wife. The trophy wife is not all that happy in the marriage which is quite telling from her behavior. The wedding sets off a comic and tragic episode that carries the rest of the story and leads to the grand finale where all the characters deal with their ethical dilemmas. Telling more about the plot would lead to spoiling it for the reader.

What I really appreciate is how the author includes the reader, letting the muses inspire us and the muses in us inspire the story, for don’t we know from the beginning what is going to happen? Of course we do. The muses take us through every little occurrence and every great step. I wanted to speak from the sidelines, give advice and narrate as the story progressed. In a sense I did. That is the beauty of the author’s style. We are part of the novel as performance piece.

This is a comedy of manners, a serious study of modern upper class hubris and detours. It is also a laugh-out-loud ride on the mild side. There is a poem in the story called “Beginner’s Greek.” I think it catches the sensibility of the novel quite well:

“… What is
Beyond analysis
Is perilous: we must not wish to seek
And cry
‘This is what I
Love, what I cherish!’ Instead, be wary of such
That we
Never be hurt or happy or anything too

This is the essence of the book’s sensibility – – the repression and lack of expression of that which matters most, intimacy. Intimacy? Sorry, but that language is not spoken here. But this is a love story, a real love story, so we know from the beginning what will inevitably occur. It’s just the route that is circuitous, unfamiliar, puzzling and downright bizarre at times.

I recommend Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice along with works by Aristophanes such as The Birds . These will augment Beginner’s Greek nicely.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0 from 154 readers
PUBLISHER: Back Bay Books; Reprint edition (May 13, 2009)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Publisher page for James Collins
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt

A New York Times review of Beginner’s Greek

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August 16, 2009 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags:  · Posted in: Contemporary, Debut Novel, Humorous, Reading Guide, Unique Narrative

One Response

  1. switterbug - August 25, 2009

    Bonnie–my husband just finished and thoroughly enjoyed this book. You really nailed it.

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