GODS BEHAVING BADLY
By Marie Phillips
Little, Brown. 293 pp. $23.99
Marie Phillips's first novel, Gods Behaving Badly, hovers somewhere between Pride and Prejudice and an episode of "Bewitched." I'm not complaining; I have an unusually high regard for Elizabeth Montgomery's oeuvre. And Austen got off some good lines, too.
Phillips lives in London and studied anthropology at Cambridge, but now she's following that great British tradition of high-brow silliness with a story that suggests the gods must be crazy. The premise of her sentimental sex-romp is that the Greek divinities are still alive, but barely. They're holed up in a London townhouse that they bought for a song 350 years ago during the plague. But they've let it run to Hades, and there's only so much even a crafty god like Hephaestus can do when none of the others will so much as hang up a toga. As usual, these 12 unearthly, egotistical roommates bicker and complain and plot revenge. But believe me, it's a long way down from Ovid; closer to what MTV might call "The Divine World."
The more you remember of Edith Hamilton's Mythology, the more you'll snicker (or groan) at all this, but even if you think Hermes is a scarf designer, don't worry: Phillips lightly fills in the necessary details along the way. Aphrodite earns money as a phone-sex worker. Artemis is a dog walker. Dionysus runs a sleazy bar. And forget Bernini's vision of Apollo pursuing Daphne as she turns into a laurel tree. Nowadays, the hunky deity cruises for sex in Hampstead Heath and routinely ravishes his half-sister in their fetid bathroom.
Part of the comedy here is Phillips's musings on the state of religious faith. The gods, "terribly weakened over time," are suffering the effects of being unwanted, unneeded. People don't believe anymore, or they've fallen in with various heresies. "If it wasn't for Jesus," Artemis complains, "I'd probably still be living on Olympus, running on the hillsides." My God, even Eros has fallen under the spell of that famous carpenter. Bickering with Aphrodite, the petulant boy whines, "I wish the Virgin Mary was my mother." The only thing worse than these humiliations is the endless boredom they have to endure, and that turns out to be their Achilles heel.
While taping the pilot episode of his new psychic TV show, Apollo spots a cleaning lady in the studio and falls hopelessly in love. (Eros has a hand -- or arrow -- in this, of course.) The object of Apollo's affection is Alice Mulholland, a plain, modest young woman who can't imagine why a handsome TV star would be interested in her. And besides, her heart belongs to equally virginal Neil, a geeky engineer who shares her love of crossword puzzles. On the outside, it doesn't look like a particularly fair fight: Apollo is the god of the sun; Neil is good at Scrabble.
The real fun begins when Alice is hired for the Sisyphean task of cleaning the gods' house. She can't complain about the salary, but the owners are strange. "She tried not to judge them; they were Greek, after all, and all families had their own ways." Although Apollo has lots of time to woo Alice as she moves from one calamitous room to another, his technique has grown rusty over the centuries: "It is a beautiful name," he tells her, "especially considering that it contains the word lice."
Miraculously, she resists his advances, even when he plays the pity card: "We were . . . famous once," he tells her. "Everyone knew who we were. People were different then. They believed. The adulation, the fame, it was like -- well, it was worship, really. We lived in a palace -- I wish you could have seen it, Alice! The fountains, the pleasure gardens, nymphs gliding gracefully through the forest -- I never looked at them, of course. We had everything, literally everything. Can you imagine it?"
"It sounds nice," Alice says.
Spurned in love and frustrated about losing his power, Apollo lashes out in a way that threatens not only Alice but the whole world. Is lowly Neil ready for the Herculean challenge that the Fates have placed before him? Can this family of gods put aside their differences long enough to regain their former glory?
The tension doesn't ratchet too high; it's a romantic comedy, after all. The key is to fly through a book like this very fast -- on Hermes' wings. But Phillips has an Olympian sense of absurdity, and there's enough ambrosial wit here to seduce most mortals for an afternoon or two on the divan. *
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. Send e-mail to email@example.com.