When we talk about beach reading, we usually mean trash fiction. But it wasn't always so. There used to be novels--they weren't common, but they did exist--that managed to be both entertaining and thoughtful. Think W. Somerset Maugham and those novels of naive Americans abroad and in over their heads. But since the passing of that generation, no one's come along to fill its shoes. Which is the first of several good reasons to welcome the arrival of Arthur Phillips, whose debut novel, the forthcoming "Prague" (Random House), not only keeps you turning pages but gives you something to think about and smile about--at the same time.
Start with the title. Nothing in this book takes place in Prague. To the story's twentysomething denizens, Prague is the place where someone else is having all the fun, like the party train in Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories." Mark and Scott and Charles and Emily and John--a scholar, a teacher, a businessman, a journalist, an embassy assistant--none of these American expatriates has much to complain about, except that they live in Budapest, a city that they are convinced lacks all trace of hipness.
Yearning is only one of "Prague's" themes. The other is misunderstanding. When these self-absorbed expats aren't wanting what they don't have, they are failing to understand what's under their noses. John doesn't get that Emily doesn't love him back. More tragically, Charles, the venture capitalist who callously engineers the takeover of a venerable Hungarian publishing firm, doesn't get that he's trifling with two centuries' worth of cultural history.
Phillips has been a child actor, jazz musician, speechwriter, failed entrepreneur and five-time "Jeopardy!" champion. Now he can add accomplished novelist to his resume. And we can stop yearning for that elegant, entertaining novel that used to be. Thanks to Phillips, it's right here, right now.