The Greek gods are alive and well and living in a crowded London flat. Okay, they aren't all that well: Their powers have been in decline for centuries, forcing them to seek alternate employment. Aphrodite is a phone-sex operator, Apollo has a psychic-TV-show pilot in the works, Artemis walks other people's dogs, and Athena mostly forces everyone to have Olympian meetings filled with legal jargon and impenetrable plans for the recovery of their proper status. But the goddess of love has a little revenge in the works for the sun god, last seen turning a mortal woman into a eucalyptus for refusing his advances; she's sicced Cupid (now an evangelical Christian) on him, causing the egotistical bastard to fall for a cleaning woman in his TV audience.
But that woman, Alice, is beloved of Neil, an engineer who hasn't yet had the courage to confess his feelings. And when the gods meddle in human affairs, it's a given that somebody is going to have to go down to the underworld to straighten things out. Marie Phillips' breezy debut novel, Gods Behaving Badly, starts off too quirky by half, in love with the cleverness of its deities-among-us premise, but when Phillips switches to the point of view of the humans, Alice and Neil, the book takes on a sweetness and even poignancy reminiscent of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. These level-headed Brits spend refreshingly little time flustered by the unlikeliness of their situation, instead getting on with the business of exploring their new worlds with a determined, practical air that perfectly sets off the gods' craziness.
For a hip, irreverent airplane read, Gods Behaving Badly sticks to the ribs surprisingly well. The love story at its heart, and the heroism it inspires, is funny and heart-tugging, without off-putting histrionics. And Phillips manages to shift the scenery enough, Virgil-like, to keep the interesting revelations about the gods' place in the 21st-century cosmos from running out halfway through. One could quibble with the likelihood of any supernatural entities not understanding why their powers are diminishing as worldviews come and go—have these gods read no children's books in the past century?—but Phillips has produced a novel with wit and staying power on her first try.