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Culture Watch





by James Collins, © 2008

Published by Little, Brown, hardcover; 441 pp

James Collins’s first novel is an odd pastiche that somehow manages to be fun to read even as one is trying to figure out where to place it on the romance/ realism/ satire/farce continuum. It is a hip look at modern mores (or lack thereof), with an in-and-out view of marriage that would horrify our grandmothers, even as it reassures our grandchildren that mistakes can be unmade.

Peter Russell is an earnest, oddly winning New Yorker who is struggling to advance in the business world. He is also a complete romantic who is instantly smitten by his seatmate on a 5½ hour flight to Los Angeles. Not only is Holly beautiful, she is reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, for pleasure, no less. And she seems to return Peter’s sense of instant connectedness. At the end of the trip, she tears out the title page of the book (neither of these supposedly smart, educated people can find a slip of paper between them), and writes her phone number on it for Peter.

Alas, when he gets to his hotel and tries to phone her, he discovers that he has lost the paper.

Fast forward to New York some time later. Peter finds that his best friend, Jonathan, has taken up with a new girlfriend who, mirabile dictu, is Holly. Too honorable to admit his heartbreak and interfere with his friend’s romance, Peter pretends that the plane ride was just a minor incident that meant nothing to him. So does Holly.

When Jonathan and Holly marry, Peter is the best man, agonizing all the while. Jonathan is every woman’s nightmare, a philandering, dishonest jerk. One wonders why Peter, who knows this, remains loyal to the friendship — but alas, without that absurdity, there would be no story.

It’s a lively little book, full of wonderfully horrid bosses, glitzy, sexy, and superficial women, with an occasional bumbling parent thrown in for good measure. Holly has a stepmother who lives in France; Peter marries a girl whom everyone thinks is just the right person; Jonathan is hit by lightning on Peter’s wedding day (oh, the irony: Holly is free just as Peter is not!), etc.

This book is all over the place. It’s a comedy of manners; it’s a cynic’s delight; it’s a social satire; it’s a paean to love at first sight; it’s a cautionary tale about concealing honest emotions.

The denouement will not come as a surprise to anyone who loves the romantic comedies of l930 cinema. As long as you are willing to suspend disbelief and go along with the farcical fun, you will find a sweetness and simplicity at the core that keeps this a swift, enjoyable read.



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©2008 Julia Sneden for


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