Most air travelers these days dread their flights, knowing they'll be crammed in the plane for a journey that likely will feature too few refreshments and too many delays. Not Peter Russell, the unabashedly romantic hero of author James Collins' irresistible new comedy of manners, Beginner's Greek. Whenever Peter boards a plane, which is often, due to his Wall Street job, he wonders whether this will be the flight on which he meets the woman of his dreams. Then, on a trip from New York to Los Angeles, it actually happens: A woman sits next to him who is not only beautiful, but on page 500 of one of Peter's favorite books. They talk (or rather, Holly talks and a smitten Peter tries his best to answer intelligibly). They learn about each other's favorite books, their families, their jobs. It looks as if this might be love at first sight.
He felt sort of the way he did when he floated on his back in cold ocean water on a clear hot day and aligned his body with the sun. The cold wavelets lapped up against him; the sun warmed his face, and he felt deliciously stimulated and calm. They had not talked about anything particularly important. They had not fused their identities with the force of smashed atoms. They had come together as simply as two flowers intertwining. How happy he felt. Five hours later, they land in L.A. and promise to meet for dinner. But when Peter gets to his hotel, her phone number has vanished from his shirt pocket. Years later, when he and Holly meet again, she's on the arm of a womanizing but charming author who also happens to be Peter's closest friend. The two eventually marry, and, resigned, Peter marries the dull but sweet Charlotte. It seems Peter and Holly weren't meant to be, but fate proves it sometimes has a funny way of working things out.
Collins, a former Time editor who has also contributed to The New Yorker, writes with spare, graceful style, and Peter Russell exudes an earnest everyman appeal that will make many a reader wish he could spring out of the pages. Beginner's Greek is one of those books that both perfectly satisfies and leaves you wanting more. Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.