(I read this book as part of 1book140. Keep up with the latest over at The Atlantic!)
Being a god used to be easy. People worshipped you — and if they didn’t, they were easy to punish. Life was good in ancient Greece.
But this isn’t ancient Greece — it’s modern-day London, and living face-to-elbow in a moldering flat with the family you’ve grown to hate is anything but awe-inspiring. Faced with the loss of their power, the gods have been reduced to all sorts of indignities: Artemis works as a dog-walker, Apollo as a TV psychic, Aphrodite operates a telephone sex line, and Eros has become a Christian.
Living in such close quarters begins to take its toll: when what begins as a tiff between Aphrodite and Apollo explodes into total war, it is up to the mortal maid Alice and her would-be boyfriend Neil to become something that hasn’t been seen in millennia: heroes.
What I loved
Taking ancient personalities and pulling them into the modern world is always interesting, especially when the personalities you’re pulling are known for being archetypal and unchanging (Apollo will always be a horrible flirt, Zeus will always be prone to throwing lightning bolts, etc.). But the world itself is constantly changing, and it’s fun to see how these unchanging beings deal with the modern world and its joys and frustrations.
In Greek myths, heroes often have inauspicious beginnings: Achilles was just a normal baby until his mother dipped him in that pool; Hercules was the illegitimate son of Zeus and a mortal woman (Alcmene). This pattern continues in Gods Behaving Badly. Although Alice and Neil are great characters right from the beginning, nothing in their characterization indicates real strength: Alice is a glorified janitor, plain and quiet and shy, and Neil is generally unremarkable and even more shy than Alice.
But that’s because heroes don’t come ready-made. They are created and shaped through necessity. It is only through their love for each other that Alice and Neil become strong enough to save themselves…and the world.
My only problem
Unfortunately, taking ancient personalities and re-interpreting them is also always difficult, because they come with so much history and lore. Stories of the Greek gods have existed for centuries, and a perceived change in their behavior or characterization can be cause for irritation among some readers. Myself included. While I think that most of the gods’ behavior is in keeping with their personalities (that is, the personalities the ancient Greeks gave them), I’m a little disappointed in author Marie Phillips’ writing of Artemis.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve always had a soft spot for Artemis, so she is the goddess about whom I have read and know the most. She’s the goddess of the hunt, wild animals, childbirth, virginity, young girls, and the bringing and relieving of disease in women. She has always seemed to me to be a protective figure, strong and wild.
Phillips’ Artemis is these things, but she’s also a complete prude. She’s absolutely appalled by Aphrodite’s sexuality, and hates to hear people discuss sex. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but I keep coming back to the fact that it seems completely out of character. To me, Artemis is someone who would value sexuality, and understand its place within the world. She would understand that sex is an important part of the life cycle, and that the innocence of childhood must eventually give way to it. Every fiber of my being wants to scream about this, and how it’s perpetuating the idea that one has to either be for or against expressing sexuality. For the love of heaven, valuing virginity is not the same as hating sex.
Despite that one flaw in characterization, I really enjoyed this story. It was funny, ridiculous, meaningful, well-written — a great summer read that’s more than just fluff. If you’re into tales of modern mythology, definitely check out Gods Behaving Badly.
“ ‘Stand aside,’ commanded Artemis. ‘I am the goddess Artemis, niece of Hades, sister of Persephone, and these are my chattels. I demand admittance into the presence of my fellow gods, without whom you would be nothing but dust and air.’
The guards looked at each other.
‘Again?’ said one of them.
‘Do you have an appointment?’ said the other.
‘Oh, just let them in,’ called a voice from inside the room, dark and booming, like tombstones being knocked over: Hades.’ ” (pp. 260-261)