Summer reading takes us to London. Something is not quite right in London’s beautiful Hampstead Heath Park. Is a dog-walker hugging that majestic English Oak? No, she is talking to it. How odd.
Oh the infamy of it all – the dog-walker is the Greek goddess Artemis, protector of nature, and the down-on-her-luck Olympian is just talking to the tree. No harm done, I think. But why is a Greek god walking dogs and talking to trees in Hampstead Heath?
In the opening scene of Marie Phillips’ debut novel Gods Behaving Badly, the reader is introduced to the goddess Artemis who has left Olympus and is eking out a living in London. She is living with the other Olympians, including her brother Apollo, aunt Aphrodite and father Zeus, in a London flophouse. Artemis’ day job is walking dogs.
On her morning sojourn through the Heath, Artemis has spotted a tree that shouldn’t be there. It’s a tree that didn’t exist yesterday:
“Dragging the mutts behind her, Artemis made her way over to the tree. She touched its bark and felt it breathing. She pressed her ear against the trunk of the tree and listened to its heartbeat. Then she looked around. Good; it was early, and there was nobody within earshot. She reminded herself not to get angry with the tree, that it wasn’t the tree’s fault.
Then, the goddess spoke to the tree:
“Hello,” she said.
There was a long silence.
“Hello,” said Artemis again.
“Are you talking to me?” said the tree. It had a faint Australian accent.
“Yes,” said Artemis. “I am Artemis.” If the tree experienced any recognition, it didn’t show it. “I’m the goddess of hunting and chastity,” said Artemis.
Another silence. Then the tree said, “I’m Kate. I work in mergers and acquisitions for Goldman Sachs.”
“Thank God for that,” said the tree. “I thought I was going mad.”
— Marie Phillips, Gods Behaving Badly
As soon as I read these lines from the first chapter of Phillips’ debut novel, I knew I needed to put the novel on my “must read” list for the summer. But first, I needed to review a little Greek mythology. Who exactly were the Olympians?
A long, long time ago a god named Zeus defeated the Titans and Zeus took up residence on Mount Olympus. Zeus was a fearsome warrior, whose favorite weapon was the thunderbolt (that fact will become important if you read the novel). In all, there were 12 gods on Olympus, but Zeus was the leader—he was definitely in charge.
The story of Olympus is interesting, but not actually needed to enjoy the novel. If you are interested in a review, here are two web sites that have brief summaries of Greek mythology: Encyclopedia Mythica or Web Greece. Web Greece is especially readable and Greece needs the extra attention these days.
Phillips’ novel hit the big time when it was reviewed for the New York Times. The review by Janet Maslin describes how far the gods had fallen:
“Aphrodite has a cellphone with the song “Venus” for its ring tone. In a world that has lost much of its romance, she spends her time saying things like “Hello, big boy” to anyone who’ll pay her for phone sex.
“Meanwhile Apollo should be doing his job as sun god instead of chasing women. “Two words,” says Aphrodite to Apollo, her vain and lazy nephew. “Global warming.” But Apollo has fallen so far — specifically, into a television show that uses a Styrofoam version of the Delphi oracle as its backdrop and “Zorba the Greek” as its theme music — that he is almost beyond saving.
“We were … famous once,” Apollo tells the book’s actual heroine, a timid young house cleaner named Alice. “The adulation, the fame, it was like — well, it was worship, really.” Alice finds this very weird but chalks it up to this family’s Greek heritage and all families’ eccentricity. Her own parents eat cereal in the afternoon.
— Janet Maslin, NY Times
Getting involved with the gods is generally a bad idea for mortals. Look what happened to Kate from Mergers and Acquisitions in the opening scene. Alice was in for trouble as soon as Apollo singled her out as she sat in the audience for his TV show. Apollo fell in love with her, but she rejected him. She was in love with Neil, an engineer at the TV studio, and that was that. But, nobody stiffs Apollo!
Alice is the cleaning woman in Neil’s office. She had noticed Neil as she made her rounds cleaning the studio. She finally spoke to him in her cleaning store room:
“So what do you think?” whispered Alice.
The door was shut; there was no risk of them being overheard. But Alice never liked to speak loudly in case it drew undue attention to herself.
“It’s very nice,” said Neil. “Very tidy.”
He had the reward of Alice beaming at him, her cheeks flushing pink with pleasure and embarrassment.
“When I first started working here it was terribly messy,” she confided. “The cleaning products were all over the place and some weren’t properly sealed. That can be dangerous, you know. With children, for example, or pets.”
Neil nodded. It was unlikely that children or pets would find themselves inside the locked cleaning storeroom of a TV studio, but Alice thought of everything.
— Marie Phillips, Gods Behaving Badly
The reader can see that Alice and Neil make a nice couple, but are they ready for adventure and fame? Doesn’t matter; that is what writer Phillips has in store for them.
Gods Behaving Badly is a delightful summer read; the story moves quickly and the plot twists and turns in unexpected directions. I especially liked the reactions of the Olympians and the gods faced the challenges of living in modern London. Phillips has written a story with a fresh look at a subject going back to Homer; good for her.
In the end, “love conquers all” in this romantic novel. Don’t miss it.
For a uniquely San Francisco interpretation of the god Artemis and the Olympians see SF Olympians, a theater group that has an annual festival. There is also a book of their plays for sale: Songs of Hestia by Stuart Eugene Bousel.
Week 27 -2012: Gods Behaving Badly: A Novel, Marie Phillips (2007).