Marie Phillips’ debut novel Gods Behaving Badly is quite a feat. Deemed by Hollywood as a “high-concept” novel, and already optioned by Ben Stiller’s ‘Red Hour Films’ for a comedy series, it has caught the attention of fiction lovers for a medley of reasons. Dare I call it “chick lit”, as some unapologetically have already? The novel fuses comedic, mythic prose with attractive elements of clean, romantic fiction.
The 12 Titans of Mt. Olympus are endowed with many of the banalities of human existence—vocations included—and they’ve shared a more than dilapidated north London flat since the mid 17th century. In a setting that barely passes for acceptable living conditions (the carpet resembles a dirty alleyway floor and hot water is scarce), the siblings and extended nuclear family coexist—albeit barely—in a modern world where the Judeo-Christian God has usurped the minds and beliefs of citizens worldwide. This has become problematic for them, and is the cause of their declining powers.
Phillips easily confronts the ever-decreasing belief in the pantheon’s efficacy, through subtly illustrating the climate of contemporary belief. Never didactic or preachy, she nudges the reader ever so slightly to explore any degree of personal culpability, but always infuses it with light-hearted humor. The novel is illuminated with the humor of picturing Artemis as a professional dog-walker because she cannot have one of her own, Apollo as a TV psychic whose Oracle of Delphi is made of corrugated cardboard, Dionysus as a nightclub owner and DJ, and Aphrodite as a phone sex operator. Phillips makes a world that has existed primarily in text accessible, sewing it into the intricacies of life as we know it today, thus creating a jagged seam.
Phillips has chosen a primarily third-person narrative, allowing Artemis—goddess of chastity, hunting, and the moon—to illuminate the viewer on what it is to be immortal in this sometimes-ugly present to which we’ve all become accustomed. The climate of life inside and outside of their home alludes to aspects of classic myths, in a more palpable, contemporary light. One of many examples is at the novel’s inception. Kate, a Goldman Sachs market trader who Apollo—Artemis’ twin and god of music, healing, and the sun—turned into a eucalyptus tree after refusing sex with him, is homage to the story of how he turned Daphne into a laurel tree. The story unfolds with candor, complete with scandalously hilarious exchanges between Aphrodite and almost everyone in the house, easily striking a chord with any empathetic reader.
Exploring the boundaries of human sentiments which we combat daily, Phillips enriches the story with an attractive degree of emotion after she introduces two mortals: Alice, a university-educated house cleaner, and her best friend and love interest, Neil. After an incident with one of Eros’ famous arrows, the tension builds between Apollo, Alice, and Neil, more so after she happens upon the house in an entrepreneurial endeavor. Almost like an isosceles triangle, Alice’s affections for Neil are equal to his for her, but Apollo’s are much more concentrated, intense, and unfortunately unrequited. The momentum with which Phillips builds on the structure of these scenes and exchanges makes it easy for readers to invest in characters and their story. There are no sudden stops or sharp turns in the novel. Pushing gods’ personalities to extreme limits, either to illustrate the universality of sentiment, or to validate identifiable characteristics with examples, she does a fine job. Oftentimes funny in the composition and execution of scenes, Phillips has a knack for conveying the fluidity of human emotion.
She traipses into the almost necessary element of love smoothly, seeming aware of not being too heavy-handed or predictable. The recovery and timelessness of love comes full circle, which was honestly disenchanting. The delivery of a clean, tight package is just shy of extraordinary, although, at that point, one must give credence to the means by which she achieved that end. And I do.
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