In what surely should have been an interesting read, Marie Phillips’s Gods Behaving Badly was interesting — just not captivating. Set in modern-day London, the greek gods we all grew up learning about in history classes and through tomes at the library are all living in a dilapidated house downtown and basking in their absolute boredom. With the spread of Christianity and the gradual turn away from “traditional” values, the Olympians find themselves sorely unnecessary, disrespected and nearly powerless.
While all of the gods reside in a dirty flat together, we get the best glimpse of Artemis (goddess of hunting, chastity and the moon), Aphrodite (famed goddess of love) and Apollo (god of the sun). Just as we would expect him to be, Apollo is vain, self-centered, arrogant and haughty. As the powers of the gods have diminished in direct correlation to the mortals’ lack of belief in them, all of the gods have been ordered to refrain from using up what little power they have left — meaning no toying with humans. Being as he is, Apollo refuses to abide by these rules and gets himself in a heap of trouble. But the gods wouldn’t “behave badly” if they actually had something to do — they have very little to pass the time.
Sick of living in squalor for the past few centuries, Artemis eventually hires Alice, a young mortal cleaning woman who appears at her door looking for work. No humans are ever allowed in the house of the gods, of course, so tensions begin to rage as gods become nervous. Aphrodite’s son Eros decides to play a trick on Apollo, teaching him a lesson about how rudely he has spurned the devotion of women throughout the years, and strikes him with an arrow to make him fall in love with the first woman he sees (we all know this story). As it happens, that woman is mousy Alice. And so begins an adventure that carries all of the gods throughout the “upperworld,” the “underworld,” and right into the mouth of Hades himself.
I wish I could say I enjoyed this book more than I did. Don’t get me wrong, it was a pretty fast read — and I enjoyed the way Phillips seamlessly integrated myth and legend with the present-day world we find in the story. Her characterizations of the gods seemed completely consistent with folklore, and the gods were all just as haughty and self-important as you would expect a god or goddess to be.
That being said, I didn’t really feel anything about what was going on. No suspense, no action, no sadness, no empathy. Mousy mortal Alice was just that — mousy. And dull. She had little to no personality matched with little description on Phillips’s part, and I just couldn’t picture her. Her would-be lover Neil was much the same way — dull, uninteresting. As characters, they didn’t engage me in the least.
Much of the book seemed to lumber along for me . . . I read through it quickly, just waiting for something big to happen. Something big does occur in the latter fourth of the book, and that was where I was finally intrigued by what was going on. Phillips’s description of the underworld was fascinating, and I was genuinely interested in the fate of the planet by the time I realized all of mankind was in mortal danger — it was just a long road getting to that point.
Overall, for fans of Greek mythology and readers of British literature, a solid — if forgettable — read. Without a basis in these stories or an interest in god-like behavior, probably better to pass on this one.
3 out of 5!