International Writers Magazine: Review
BEHAVING BADLY by Marie Phillips
Little, Brown and Company, 2007, 294 pp.
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
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
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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