Reviewed by Sue Bond
Beginner’s Greek: A Novel
by James Collins
ISBN 978-0316021555, 2008. 441 pp. $US23.99
Very early on the filmic nature of this romantic comedy became obvious. The storyline and the scenes lend themselves to becoming Beginner’s Greek: The Movie. Apparently, others have thought the same.
It is an entertaining and funny novel with that page-turning quality, but sadly, forgettable. The main character is Peter Russell, who meets a beautiful young woman called Holly on a plane trip to Los Angeles, and it’s ‘love at first sight’. She writes her phone number on the title page of the book she’s reading, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, but Peter loses it.
The next we know is that several years have passed, and Peter is now in his thirties, working for an old, powerful, wealthy family firm, Beeche and Company, run by the widower Arthur Beeche. Peter has a cardboard cutout sadistic boss, and is about to marry Charlotte, a neurotic Francophile painted throughout the book as not very exciting in any capacity: wife, lover, daughter, friend, employee. She’s obviously competent, but a worrier and a fusser and a bit dorky. I began to feel very sorry for Charlotte.
It turns out that Peter’s best friend Jonathan (a promiscuous writer who gives new meaning to the word ‘insincere’) is married to… Holly. Neither Peter nor Holly knows how much they are loved by the other. Will these two get together? Who will be hurt in the process?
The characters live in a world of privilege. There is an almost dream sequence scene where Peter takes Holly to one of Arthur Beeche’s famous invitation-only dinners. Beeche is wealthy beyond wealth, owning several homes throughout the world, and priceless art and antiques. Peter finds himself surrounded by the famous and the notable at his table, including a Nobel Prize winner. What happens is miraculous, ridiculous and very funny, and I can see how well it will translate to the screen.
The problem is that there’s not much substance to this novel. If all you want is entertainment, then this will provide it. It is competently written, but uneven; character development is in need of work. And there is too much manipulation of the reader.
For example, a character who is only briefly mentioned earlier, is substantially reintroduced in the epilogue, and used to round off the plot neatly and sentimentally. She is different to most of the other characters, being a student and struggling, and is entirely unaware of how the world works. In part she is there to cement the awfulness of another character. I finished the novel feeling irritatingly manipulated, and puzzled. Here was a character with some poignancy, but we hardly get to know her before the story ends.
Another character gets to speak wisely about the care of the suddenly bereaved, but it comes across as stagey (filmey?) and jarring. Do people really make sanctimonious speeches of that nature in that situation?
Collins describes some things very well, such as the feel of luxurious bedlinen and the comfort of a warm bed on a cold day. And I can accept that strange things do happen, including coincidences, and there are more than enough in Beginner’s Greek to stretch credibility. A fun frolic through the land of the well off, but ultimately as thin as the paper on which it is printed.
About the reviewer: Sue Bond is a writer and reviewer living in Brisbane with her partner and their large cat. She writes reviews for the Courier Mail, Metapsychology Online, Journal of Australian Studies Review of Books, dotlit, Asian Review of Books and Social Alternatives. Some of her short stories have been published in Hecate, Imago, Mangrove and SmokeLong Quarterly, and she has degrees in medicine, literature and creative writing. She is working on a memoir of her adoptive life, as well as short stories and essays. Her blog is at