We all know a Peter Russell—the solid, relatively successful guy with moderate good looks but no particular star quality. The pleasant but forgettable fellow at the wedding reception awkwardly wearing rented shoes. The guy who is to dating life what Bill Pullman is to Hollywood. Can’t quite place Pullman? Exactly.
So it’s not so surprising, then, when twenty-something Peter, the protagonist of James Collins’ debut novel Beginner’s Greek, falls in love on a plane and goes on to spend the better part of a decade pining after Holly Edwards, a woman he can’t possibly have. Initially, this potential soul mate is unattainable because he lost the phone number she wrote on a torn page from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.
“He turned the pocket inside out. The piece of paper was lost, there was no doubt about that,” Collins writes. “Like a drunk desperate to find enough change for a drink, he would turn out all the pockets of his clothes, where he would find all those little pieces of paper that he had accumulated during his trip…. As for the handwriting, he could remember its general look and the space it took up, but he could not picture anything specific, except the name: ‘Holly.’ ”
But the elusive piece of paper that disappeared from the pocket of his Oxford shirt is only the first, and most pragmatic, reason Holly is out of his reach. In fact, Peter is just not the sort of guy who gets the girl. When his best friend Jonathan “introduces” them several years later, it’s because Holly’s sleeping with Jonathan, a rakish but charming chum Peter doesn’t actually like all that much. And if that weren’t tragic enough, Peter then watches the love of his life marry his incorrigible friend, whose chronic, pathological philandering is so prolific it makes JFK look prudish.
In Collins’ fictional world, there are also second marriages, New York social pretension, loveless unions, an unwed mother, in addition to the very unlucky Peter Russell himself.
“Good old Peter, who worked up on the fifty-eighth floor of the Beeche Building, and, it was true, had done a couple of decent things in his job,” Collins writes. “Peter, who had started on the JV hockey team in college. Peter, who was perfectly nice-looking in a boring sort of way.”
Poor Peter. After his ideal mate falls into the arms of someone utterly unworthy, he eventually marries a woman with whom he’s not in love (and whom he doesn’t even find very pretty), and his Napoleonic boss has it out for him. “You’re the Christian that the lion is eating for lunch; I’m the emperor,” the soulless Wall Street taskmaster tells Peter at one point. “You’re the spy; I’m the guy attaching electrodes to your scrotum. You’re the wart; I’m the person who’s got the wart and who likes to pick it until it’s gone altogether.”
On the bright side, Peter’s not a leper.
The sobering, life-altering chain of events would be dreadfully sad were it not for the fact that it’s also hysterically funny. Beginner’s Greek is a romantic comedy, and as such it rewards virtue and punishes evil, ultimately smiling on Peter and providing this transcendent good guy with a tidy resolution that is satisfying, if not entirely surprising.
It’s no wonder Collins’ subject matter and writing style have inspired comparisons to a certain big-gun writer of the classics. “Beginner’s Greek is either an incisive romantic comedy or a feel-good social satire,” reads author Larry Doyle’s (I Love You, Beth Cooper) dust-jacket blurb. “It hardly matters, it’s a huge entertainment. With his big, sloppy heart and astringent soul, James Collins is the new Jane Austen, only taller.”
The parallel sends the clearly modest Collins, a former editor at both Spy and Time magazines who has also contributed to The New Yorker, into a fit of gushing gratitude.
“I was incredibly, incredibly pleased and honored and amazed that anyone would compare me to her in terms of quality,” the New York native tells the Scene from his home in Virginia. “But about the subject matter, that didn’t surprise me. I think it works because you have people concerned about money and marriage—and I guess some of the humor is a little bit like her.”
Unlike a certain New York-based national newspaper that gave away the book’s ending in a headline, the Scene isn’t a killjoy mystery slayer. But, the author says, he wasn’t writing a riddle.
“I’m surprised how many people feel authentically suspenseful about what’s going to happen,” says Collins, who would seem to be an eminently optimistic fellow with an idealized view of love. Right?“Um, no,” he says laughing. “I’m not really like that in real life. The quote I liked best on the back cover…is from Cathleen Schine, who says, ‘James Collins is a skeptic, a realist and a fervent romantic all in one.’ That combination wouldn’t surprise my wife. If it had been nothing but purely romantic, I think that would have surprised her.”
I was all like "how do you get the phone number for TMZ?!?!" you can't…
I think it's weird when speculation is wedged into an otherwise straightforward biography. I love…
I always read your column BEFORE I watch the show anymore. It's better that way.
What's the other review you read?
This was the worse review I've ever read. Maybe you should quit this career path…