Lost in Translation

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

BEGINNER'S GREEK

By James Collins

Little Brown. 441 pp. $23.99

Peter and Holly have it made. Within minutes of takeoff, the aisle mates on a flight from New York to Los Angeles discover in each other what they've been aching to find all of their long young lives. Flying over the flyover states, the characters in this Jane Austen-inspired first novel by James Collins open their worlds to each other, share their family tales and even discuss Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. Holly's a good-hearted teacher, Peter's a good-hearted financier. At 30,000 feet, their conversation runs like this: "So, you're a romantic?" Holly asks, tilting her head just so. Peter blushes. "I guess. Kind of." Eternal bliss is just a safe landing away for this comely pair.

But, dear reader, are things ever that simple? Serendipity has a treacherous twin -- Idiocy. And Idiocy rules most of the decisions made by almost every character in this illogical escapade. The avalanche of annoying plot devices starts with Peter losing Holly's number, and, as they say about avalanches, it's all downhill from there.

Fast forward a few years. Peter is moving up at the firm, but his psychotic boss is undermining his every move. Peter is also engaged. To Charlotte, a flaky Francophile whom Peter does not love, actually. Holly? Well, Holly is married to Peter's best friend, a writer and a lout. She's still sweet as pie and just seeing her -- which Peter does often because they're all friends now -- drives blades of regret, envy, despair and what else, um, love, yes, blades of love through his heart.

There are multiple other mini-plots in this tedious book that tries very hard to be a comedy of manners. At a dinner party Peter worries about whether "he would add piquancy and wit to the conversation." A lot more of both would have gone a long way toward making Beginner's Greek feel less like a madcap lesson in mores. As for Peter and Holly's fate? Did we mention the Jane Austen influence? Without giving too much away . . . everything works out just fine.

Though Collins crafts the occasional charming scene or sentence, he routinely serves up clunkers such as referring to a man's formal footwear as "black patent leather pumps," or proffering this mind-boggling statement of love: "When you turned and smiled at me, all the light in the universe and all the matter in the universe turned into light." Hmm, it's all beginner's Greek to me.

-- Joe Heim is an editor for Sunday Source.


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