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Gods Behaving Badly


Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “Gods Behaving Badly” A Novel by Marie Phillips

October 17, 2014

Eternity is a long time, even for an immortal. Thanks to a good real estate deal in the 1660s the Greek Gods have been living in London for some time, or so the premise of Marie Phillips’ hilarious novel has it. Although they are heartily sick of each other, they avoid mortals to the extent possible. That’s unfortunate, because with the exception of Ares and Hermes the Gods don’t have much to do – the banning of fox hunts, for example, limits Artemis’ scope – and they’re also short of funds.

The gods’ needs are minimal – they don’t eat or, evidently, need electricity, but each does what he or she can to bring in a little money. Artemis is a dog-walker; Dionysus runs a wine bar; Apollo is trying out a gig as the psychic host of a TV show on an obscure channel. Aphrodite has a successful phone sex business. Athena may be the goddess of wisdom but she finds communicating – anything – a challenge.

One day Alice, a mortal, presents herself at their door. Alice has a degree in linguistics but makes her living as a cleaner, and the Gods need help cleaning their house. Alice is madly in love with Neil, another mortal, and he with her, but both are too shy to express their love. Through a series of circumstances much too complicated to summarize here, Alice catches the eye of Apollo, is killed by one of Zeus’ lightning bolts, and the world threatens to come to an end.

Only Hades and Persephone can keep things going, it seems, and they are of course in the Underworld. In fact, Persephone has come to prefer life there as the Gods’ circumstances in the Upper World decay. A hero is needed to persuade them to step in, and Neil, much to his surprise, is that hero. It helps that Alice is in the Underworld (you get there, appropriately enough, by the Underground), and that Neil hopes for a second chance. If you are thinking of Orpheus and Eurydice at this point, Ms Phillips is well ahead of you.

The effect of the disjunct between the Gods’ past glory and their present circumstances (the portrait of Zeus as a decrepit old man will be familiar to readers with aging parents) is deeply dispiriting to them (though Eros finds some satisfaction exploring Christianity). Neil and Alice are not particularly religious, and there is some nice argument about who is – and is not – a God. Fortunately, the mortals provide the liveliness and initiative missing in the Gods. (The Gods do have active sex lives. Not Artemis, who continues to value chastity.) Phillips wraps everything up very satisfactorily. If you have a long plane ride or vacation planned, take this witty book with you. Or give it to a friend who is convalescing. Your friend will feel better immediately, and so will you.

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