Reflections on “Gods Behaving Badly,” Marie Phillips

godsbehavingMy first review of a novel! I actually read this one years ago but seeing as they’ve now made a movie adaptation, I thought now would be a good time to review it, from a Pagan perspective.

The story is about the Greek gods all living together in a dilapidated flat in London. Their powers are mysteriously dwindling, forcing them to live rather mundane mortal lives – Apollo is a TV psychic, Artemis is a professional dog-walker, Dionysus is a DJ, and Aphrodite is a phone sex worker. In between all this, they get up to all the usual family business – squabbling, backstabbing and lots and lots of somewhat incestuous sex (really, that’s how the book opens, and it’s pretty funny).Then one day their lives collide with those of two highly unremarkable humans….and comedy and adventure ensues.

So how will Pagans react to seeing their beloved deities star in what’s essentially a rom-con novel at heart? To start with, they may find the very simplistic caricatures of the gods downright annoying. Gone, for example, is the complex mixture of tenderness and passion from Apollo and Aphrodite – they are merely portrayed as shallow, air-headed sex maniacs. Artemis fares a little better, but even she lacked the mystery and wildness that I attribute with her mythic counterpart. And portraying Athena, who is as much a goddess of war and glory as she is a goddess of wisdom, as a timid and awkward nerd is just plain wrong! Pagans may also find it quite upsetting to see the gods they respect and worship reduced to the weak, foolish buffoons that appear in this novel (the depiction of Zeus, when we finally meet him, is particularly disturbing). I think one has to bear in mind that Phillips was never writing for a Pagan audience, or even for an audience that is a little more educated than usual in Greek mythology – she’s playing on all our most basic associations with the Gods that most people half-remember from school or from depictions in movies and TV shows.

For the purposes of a rom-com, I at least can forgive this. The book is funny, after all – there is something inherently amusing about imagining the supernatural beings coping with modern London life. There’s some great little touches too – I found it particularly amusing that Eros has converted to Christianity, much to his mother Aphrodite’s annoyance!

And what’s more, it gets better and better and more and more fantastical further in. Surprisingly, the two human characters – Neil and Alice – are at least, if not more, interesting than the immortals. I would go as far as to say that Alice is perhaps one of the most unusual and yet realistic heroines I’ve encountered in a novel – she’s highly intelligent and analytical, yet with a crippling shyness and humility that holds her back, but this doesn’t really get her down. She’s introverted but not angsty – she enjoys her modest life. I found that I liked her a lot and really felt for her when she was going through some very, very tough times at the hands of the gods.

This book also has some unexpectedly strong fantasy elements. One of the highlights for me being the depiction of the Underworld, which is not only very creative but also allows for some strong emotion; like its ancient Greek counterpart, Phillips’ Underworld isn’t inherently a blissful Heaven-like place and there’s some moments of sadness and bleakness to be had here. I also found the depiction of the river Styx both imaginative and appealing – I would have loved to have seen a little more of this element, in fact. In addition to the Underworld, I also liked the book’s depiction of Hera – she was perhaps the closest to what I imagine her mythological counterpart to be out of all the Gods, mixed with a feeling of both great dignity and great dread.

There’s a feel-good ending to the story –  everything works out for everyone and you do get a nice warm feeling inside. No, it’s absolutely not a deep book and Pagans will find their eyes rolling (if not their stomachs churning) at what the author has done to their gods, but if you can look past this, it’s quite an enjoyable, sweet and funny read. Good for when you’re looking for something light after all those dusty, heavy tomes on arcane rites.

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One response to “Reflections on “Gods Behaving Badly,” Marie Phillips

  1. Pingback: Reflections on “The Magicians,” Lev Grossman | Trellia's Mirror Book

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