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The International Writers Magazine: Review

Little, Brown and Company, 2007, 294 pp.
ISBN-10: 0-316-06762-8
ISBN-13: 978-0-316-06762-1
Charlie Dickinson

The premise of Marie Phillips's debut novel, GODS BEHAVING BADLY, makes a certain sense if your old Methuselah self has been around a long time, say, even thousands of years: The pantheon for much of the family of immortal, omnipotent Greek deities is now a crumbly house in Central London, where nerdy Athena convinced the family to move and buy in 1665, after the plague tumbled properties to rock-bottom prices.

The reader will be hard-pressed to find a more light-hearted introduction to Greek mythology than GODS BEHAVING BADLY. Key roles go to goddess Artemis and her brother Apollo. Their sibling rivalry, a power-packed motif pulling the story through its turns. Appearing in supporting roles: erotic Aphrodite, wearing a Bluetooth and servicing a phone-sex clientele. Her son, Eros, toting bow and arrows, a Jesus freak. Reputedly wise Athena, polysyllabic-spouting geek nobody understands. Hermes, usually out on errands. Dissolute "Dion," a night club entrepreneur. Handyman Hephaestus not keeping the house in good repair. Despairing Demeter, her gardens done in by global warming. Parents Hera and Zeus, confined to locked attic rooms. It would appear a family of Greek gods fallen on hard times.

GODS BEHAVING BADLY gets underway with tracksuited Artemis out walking the dogs, a gig she does for hire. In Hampstead Heath, Artemis notices a tree not there the day before. A deity, she unhesitantly talks to the tree. The tree answers ... in an Australian accent. It's a eucalyptus, says its name is Kate and she's really an M&A specialist with Goldman Sachs. But why are you a tree? Artemis asks.

Artemis soon decides her randy brother Apollo was up to his usual seductive games, with a mortal, no less, and rejected, then turned M&A specialist Kate into a eucalyptus, subgenus mallee with variegated leaves. Artemis is furious. Soon, with support from Aphrodite, she forces brother Apollo to swear on the River Styx, for the next ten years, he will not coerce a mortal again.

Into the path of gods stumbles a pair of repressed introverts, Alice and Neil, whose awakening interest in each other might creep forward if they ever took off the emergency brakes. Instead of playing word games on Neil's Palm Pilot, the reader wants, at times, for Neil to say something a bit aggro, for Alice to respond, perhaps, with a withering look. That is, for something to start happening. And it does.

Deus ex machina to the rescue. Apollo falls hard for Alice, with help from an arrow shot by you-know-who. Apollo just might have to break his vow to the River Styx. And, of course, at last, Neil lets up on the emergency brake and gets moving toward the object of his desire: Alice. That's the setup powering this very funny tale of frolicking Olympians.
For the most part, Phillips hews a pretty close line to a story about Greek deities misbehaving and complicating the lives of two mortals, Alice and Neil, a complementary "boygetsgirlboylosesgirlboygetsgirlback" motif tossed in for good measure. The narrative has a sure, light touch and imaginative tropes: "...if you have even an ounce of loyalty left in your raisin of a heart, you will not open that door." But above all--and this is where comedic novels work or don't work--the author's dialogue sparkles and carries the story forth on its bubbly way. Every character gets a well-defined voice, from lusty Aphodite to addled Zeus--his memory problems are obvious once he starts talking with son Apollo. The timing, the phrasing of the exchanges seemingly go from strength to strength as the novel unfolds. From its well-conceived setup to its Underworld dash-and-back ending, the narrative never lacks energy or focus.

Ultimately, GODS BEHAVING BADLY is about more than a cast of Greek deities mislocated in time. As the reader moves through the story and gets to know these well-drawn characters, she, of course, knows something's very human about these deities. From the virginal goddess Artemis to the dissolute god "Dion," a bit of all of us and those around us is in these gods and goddesses. That point was made by Jungian psychoanalyst Jean Shinoda Bolen in her two books, GODDESSES IN EVERYWOMAN and GODS IN EVERYMAN. That's the charm and delight of GODS BEHAVING BADLY. (From a pantheon of deities with personality to an impersonal, unknowable, Rorschach-testy CEO of the cosmos: This is progress?) Read GODS BEHAVING BADLY for a wonderful entertainment about a human legacy we inherited from Greek mythology.
© Charlie Dickinson Feb 2008
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