By Marie Phillips

Little, Brown. 293 pp. $23.99

Reviewed by Jennifer Berger

To the gods of Mount Olympus, Jesus was just a carpenter and a thief. But, in

Gods Behaving Badly

, the debut novel of Marie Phillips, the gods of ancient Greece are hardly any better. They live in a dilapidated London townhouse that tries as hard as they do not to stick out. The only reminder of the good old days is a laurel wreath there for the sake of nostalgia.

The premise of Phillips' novel is promising, if trashy. Having fallen out of the public eye, the gods of Olympus have had to find various ways of occupying themselves and conserving their waning power. So Aphrodite, goddess of love, is now a phone sex operator who regularly answers her phone (which rings with Bananarama's "Venus"): "Hello, big boy." Clearly, in the 21st century, sex has replaced love.

Ares, god of war, is a little better off, primarily concerned with stirring up conflict in the Middle East. Artemis, goddess of the hunt, chastity and the moon, has become a professional dog walker.

In fact, the story begins as Artemis is out walking her dogs and sees a eucalyptus tree that wasn't there the day before. On closer inspection, the tree is found to be a young woman, Kate, an accountant at Goldman Sachs. Turning women into trees is the trademark of the sun god, Apollo, and Kate has been punished for spurning him. Apollo, incidentally, has fallen far indeed, from the summit of Olympus to the pits of reality TV.

At the taping of one of Apollo's episodes as a television psychic, Aphrodite, furious at him over a minor squabble, enlists her son Eros to make sure that Apollo gets his just deserts. Enter Alice, our antiheroine, a tiny, blond cleaning lady with a voice that is barely audible. Eros hits Apollo with one of his golden arrows and - conveniently - the first person Apollo sees is Alice.

Conflict arrives in the form of Neil - "a hideous rodent-like male," as Apollo puts it - who is in love with Alice and vice versa. Apollo, however, cannot leave Alice - who is, after all, the family maid - alone. He tries to seduce her and almost succeeds. "I'd like to rape you," he then tells her, "but would that cause you harm?"

Desperate, Apollo sics Zeus, now a decrepit landlord, on Alice, precipitating a showdown between him and Neil, who realizes "that in all the jealous hours he had spent feeling inadequate as he compared his unimpressive form with Apollo's glorious beauty, it had never occurred to him that Apollo might be stupid."

At this point, the plot is so contrived, only an original spin will bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. Unfortunately, what we get is a cliche.

Perhaps the most heroic feat in this novel of despicable gods and timid mortals is how Phillips manages to manipulate the reader into actually liking her characters. Conflict arises not between right and wrong, weak and powerful, but between believers and nonbelievers. Ultimately, what saves the day is faith. As Neil says, "Until today I was an atheist. I wasn't even Church of England. I thought I was so superior to anyone who believed any of that crap."

Trashy it may be, but

Gods Behaving Badly

is at least winningly unpretentious.

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