Published by Little, Brown and Company
Review by W. R. Greer
Gods Behaving Badly is a difficult novel to classify. It's part concept novel, part love story, and part satire, but in the long run, it doesn't really matter. It's a debut novel from Marie Phillips, and while it's a bit overdone at times, it's still a fun reading experience.
The setup for Gods Behaving Badly is that the gods of the Greek pantheon are no longer living in splendor on Mount Olympus. Instead they live in a dilapidated house in London. They moved there during one of the medieval plagues because real estate prices were cheap. They don't clean the house, the furniture is falling apart (although Hephaestus tries to do a few repairs), and there are too many of them to live comfortably together. They don't even particularly like each other and spend their time trading insults and barbs. They're a particular unhappy bunch, their powers are on the wane, and they attribute this to their growing ages, even though they are immortal. In general, their behavior toward each other is terrible and their behavior toward mortals is even worse.
Many of the gods have jobs in an effort to raise money to pay their expenses, although none of them are terribly successful at it. Artemis walks dogs, Aphrodite works as a phone sex operator, and Dionysus runs his own nightclub. Hermes spends his time delivering messages and transporting the dead to the underworld. Ares causes conflict wherever he goes. Demeter tends to the garden. Zeus is old, feeble, and a little crazy and Hera guards his room from the other gods. Athena, goddess of wisdom, tries to explain what is happening to them to the other gods, but she uses so many highbrow words and ideas that they can't understand her.
The novel begins with Artemis encountering a tree that had recently been a woman. What has aroused Artemis' ire is that she knows this is due to Apollo's behavior, and the tree/woman confirms it. She had spurned Apollo's sexual proposition and in anger, he turned her into a tree. It's not the first time he's resorted to this behavior when not getting his way. Artemis, goddess of the moon, the hunt, and chastity, is Apollo's twin. She's one of the nicer gods, although she treats mortals as unworthy of her time and attention. Apollo (god of the sun), on the other hand, wants sex, glory, and attention from mortals. To satisfy his constant sexual needs, he has sex with his aunt, Aphrodite. After eons together, sex among the gods has become an incestuous necessity (with the exception of Artemis who is a virgin), not just to satisfy their lustful urges, but to relieve their never-ending boredom. While Apollo is having sex with Aphrodite again, he ponders the boring repetition of his life:
The term deja vu was completely meaningless in his life. He had already done everything over and over and over and over again, for as long as — well, for as long as the earth revolved around the sun. None of it had any meaning anymore. Had it ever had any meaning? He trawled through the endless repetitions of his memory, searching for some youthful spark of enthusiasm, some sense of newness. Surely it had been there once. But the only example he could find was how he had felt about Alice.Alice, and her boyfriend, Neil, are mortals. Alice is a cleaner and Neil is a structural engineer. They're both socially inept and in love with each other without admitting it. As a matter of fact, while they long for each other's company, they're both afraid the other doesn't share the same interest. Apollo gets his own television show predicting the future, with help from a couple scantily-clad sibyls, and Alice takes Neil to the show. Aphrodite, wanting some fun of her own, browbeats her son, Eros, to go along with her plan to get even with Apollo. During the show, Eros shoots one of his arrows into Apollo's heart, causing him to fall in love with the first woman he sees, which turns out to be Alice.
Alice loses her job cleaning at the television studio and Apollo's show is canceled. Looking for new work as a cleaner, Alice notices the dilapidated house and offers her services. Artemis hires her, after explaining a multitude of rules she must follow. Apollo is infatuated by Alice, following her everywhere around the house while she cleans. This strokes Neil's jealousy, but Apollo can't help himself. Thanks to Eros' arrow, he's uncontrollably and unavoidably madly in love with her. When he finally makes his move on Alice, she runs away. Apollo, spurned again, arranges her demise, and Alice dies right in front of Neil.
Apollo, though, regrets his action. Eros, who has taken up Christianity for something to believe in, explains that he's feeling guilt. Apollo wants to apologize to Neil, but something goes very wrong, and the sun goes out when Apollo falls comatose. Artemis needs a hero, so she conscripts the grieving Neil by convincing him that together they can save Alice, and the world. To do so, however, they have to travel to the underworld (through the London Underground, of course) and convince Hades to release her.
Gods Behaving Badly starts smartly. Marie Phillips had obviously given the whole setup a lot of thought and the interactions between the gods, while a bit over the top, is done with a understandable perspective of a group of people who have spent eternity together. That this group of immortals is forced to live among the common rabble who don't recognize or appreciate them adds another layer of humor. Eros' admiration of Jesus, while acknowledging he couldn't be an immortal god, is a nice touch, and Athena's hilarious unsuccessful attempts to communicate with the rest of the gods because she's too smart for them resonates with anyone who's had to deal with a know-it-all. The novel, though, threatens to run aground several times. The arrogance and the nastiness of the gods and goddesses toward each other is funny at first, but by the middle of the novel, it tends to get repetitious and without adding any new humor or drama. Neil and Alice are sweet, but their ineptness and naiveté wear thin after a while. Once Apollo makes his pass at Alice, though, the plot springs forward and reads quickly to the end.
While the gods are immortal, eventually it is Neil and Alice who are the heart and soul of the novel. While the gods are mostly insufferable, the sweetness and longing of the two lovers separated by death is poignant and touching. While on his heroic quest to rescue Alice, Neil doesn't necessarily become any wiser or stronger, but his resolve and love are what drive him forward.
Despite a few bumps along the way and some mean, pernicious behavior of the gods, Gods Behaving Badly eventually rescues itself from the traps it must avoid. When it tends to get repetitious or too over the top, Marie Phillips guides it back to a scene or setting that highlights human foibles or insights, and the novel is back on the road to being an entertaining read. Once Neil and Alice are confident enough to take over the novel, it glides full of humor to its immortal conclusion. Gods Behaving Badly is an original concept wrapped around a familiar theme, and the combination of the unique setting, absurd and lecherous as it is, with a sweet love story makes it a successful debut novel for Marie Phillips. While you can't necessarily count on the gods to do the right thing, reading Gods Behaving Badly is a safe bet for any reader.
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