July 5, 2008

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Philips

Gods Behaving Badly is Marie Philips's first novel. I loved it. Here's a quick synopsis: 

The gods of Olympus live on on the 21st Century, but their powers are waning because no one believes. They're forced to live two to a bedroom (Apollo and Ares share; Persephone takes the floor when she visits Demeter) in a dilapidated house in London. They do mundane work to pay the bills (Artemis is a dog-walker, Apollo's a TV psychic and Aphrodite is a phone sex worker), and in general are having a bit of a hard time (Eros has converted to Christianity and Zeus is the crazy old guy in the attic). Apollo refuses to heat some shower water for Aphrodite (they have to conserve their powers) and revenge ensues. Then Artemis hires a mortal cleaner named Alice, who, with her non-boyfriend Neil, bring about some greatly needed change, though entirely by accident.

This synopsis doesn't do justice to the plot, which arcs very cleanly while covering a a great deal of well-paced ground. In fact, their isn't one loose link in the plot or one flabby bit in its execution. Philips's breezy, clever style works beautifully for the material, as well. But in a book full of the delightful, it's Philips's characters that make Gods Behaving Badly an especially enjoyable read.

Neil and Alice are Philips's two mortal protagonist/heroes. We first meet them in Alice's broom-closet office when they sat down with orange juice boxes to play Scrabble before watching a taping of Apollo's awful cable TV show.  Their most outstanding qualities, respectively, are how nice they, yet Philips also establishes them as fully rounded characters without compromising her generally light hand. 

And if Philips's mortals charm, then her Greek Pantheon dominates. I actually laughed out loud. I almost never laugh out loud when I read (nor do I usually cry - except for Where the Red Fern Grows, which made me cry like a little girl, and not just because I was a little girl when I read it). Philips's characterizations of the Olympians as narcissistic and fantastically amoral worked - and it worked because she also allowed for a great deal of pathos in them as well. Demeter is beside herself because she couldn't keep a clemetis alive, Artemis misses her dogs, and Athena, though the goddess of wisdom, cannot communicate clearly enough for anyone to understand her, and so on.... 

Philips's characterizations, which come through like crystal in her dialogue, are her real achievement. The characters, and her care in conceiving them, set Gods Behaving Badly apart from the flock of other clever, post-modern retellings of historical, mythological and otherwise un-copyrighted material that has recently been appropriated. Much as Glen Duncan re-conceived the devil in I, Lucifer, Philips re-conceives the Greek Pantheon here. Granted, Duncan's work is by far more speculative and intellectually daring, but for sheer entertainment purposes, Gods Behaving Badly is an absolute winner. 


5 comments:

Audie said...

I have almost bought this book several times but decided at the last minute that I didn't want to read it. Now it is back on the list. ;)

JimDesu said...

I just read it too -- very much worth buying.

... and wow, given the amoral nastiness of the Greek pantheon, you could almost believe they'd end up this way too.

Madeleine said...

Audie - Definitely worth putting it back on the list. It's a really quick read and if it doesn't make you laugh, you can toss it at me :-)

Jimdesu - It *was* kind of hard to feel bad for them being stuck in a drippy house in London. Except for Demeter - she was nice....

Convivialdingo said...

Me too... wasn't sure if it was a comedy or wannabe myself - glad to hear it's good!

Thanks!

Madeleine said...

My pleasure :-)