The five self-absorbed expatriates of Arthur Phillips' debut novel, Prague, suffer from an extreme case of grass-is-greener syndrome, implied in the book's ironic title. (All of the action happens in Budapest, not in the idealized Czech city.) A tale of four Americans and one Canadian who travel to Hungary shortly after the collapse of Communism, Prague builds on the early '90s trend of adventurous -- or escapist, depending on how you look at it -- young explorers heading to Eastern Europe.
The beleaguered Hungarian capital is no match for the romanticized domes and spires of Prague, a city that journalist John Price, the novel's most thoughtful character, imagines to be "where real life is going on right now." The novel's characters while away their days sipping coffee and thinking too much, striving to keep up with the Joneses -- who, in this case, live in Prague. But as Phillips acknowledges in an interview with the publisher, their preoccupation with being in the right place at the right time is indicative of ennui born of a life without real suffering: "The novel is named not for a city, but for an emotional disorder. If only I were over there, or with her, or born 50 years earlier, then I would be where the action is," explains Phillips.
Phillips lived in Budapest from 1990 to 1992, and he does a good job depicting the tendency of émigrés to feel united as foreigners in an exotic city, though they'd have little to do with one another back home. As might happen with folks who fancy themselves resident experts, the group gets off on mocking newcomers and feeding a naive guidebook writer with false information on local hot spots. John, who writes a column for BudapesToday, has followed his older brother Scott abroad -- despite the fact that Scott wants nothing to do with him. He's also fallen in love with Emily, a Nebraska farm girl who works at the American Embassy. The circle of friends also includes Mark, a gay Canadian scholar researching a book about the history of nostalgia, and Charles, a conniving Hungarian-born (but Ohio-bred) venture capitalist.
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Charles' scheme to take over a historic and newly privatized Hungarian publishing house makes up the bulk of Prague's plot. But the novel is one of ideas rather than action, and Phillips excels at making Budapest an appealing destination. The Harvard-educated author -- who has been a child actor, jazz musician, speechwriter, "dismally failed entrepreneur," and five-time champion on Jeopardy! -- pokes fun at his egotistical refugees, contrasting their troubles with the harsh realities of the city's natives. As an expat who'd "fallen hopelessly in love with Budapest, and would have done anything just to stay there a little longer," Phillips apparently learned the lesson that his creations couldn't -- not to let life on the Danube pass him by.