Now, I’m not especially well-versed in Greek mythology, but I know enough to affirm that the gods were always screwing with people. A contemporary comedy novel about the interplay between ancient gods and the modern world looks like the perfect place to play with this, as well as of course the business of modern romance and the pursuit of happiness, but instead this book left me with the baffling conclusion that none of us have any autonomy and we are all playthings of the selfish divines.
Which was not what I expected when I plucked Aphrodite’s Workshop for Reluctant Lovers out of the sales bin at the local university supply store based on title and premise alone. Bubbly prose, strange pacing and an existential crisis all for just $10, though? Hard to argue with that.
For some actual context, here is the premise of the book: narrator one is Rebecca Finch, a successful romance novelist who finds herself drastically disillusioned with love when she realises that leaving her boyfriend on a train platform and going without him to France is the best time she’s had in ages (to be fair, it unfolds over the first few chapters that said boyfriend is a controlling, childish prick, as all initial boyfriends at the start of romance novels are—hard to sympathise with, easy to dump, all the better to pave the way for the actual love interest).
When her newly-engaged goddaughter asks for advice re: marriage and whether it’s all worth it, Rebecca can’t think of a single positive thing to say and basically tells her that the pursuit of romantic love is foolish and books like hers are spreading dangerous misinformation that glosses over the Ugly Truth: most relationships crumble, most people get divorced, and seeking a soulmate and the associated happiness is effectively a bogus concept.
Narrator number two is Eros, son of Aphrodite and archer of attraction, who is watching all this from Mount Olympus. The scenes among the gods are downright surreal and hilarious, since they mostly seem to take place in some sort of divine dining room with Zeus at the head of the table and the goddesses sniping at each other, and Eros himself narrates in mangled teen-speak. Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, is thrown into a tizz when she sees Rebecca, a favourite human who used her writing to spread the word of Aphrodite’s cult (and ensure Aphrodite’s place among the powerful deities) denouncing love point blank.
Wondering what went wrong, and searching for a solution so they can confirm their importance and stay at the gods’ table, Aphrodite and Eros go through the tapes (Eros wishes his mother would get with the times and convert to DVD) of Rebecca’s life. Alas, it transpires that when she was young a slightly drunk Eros shot her and the boy who almost hit her with a car with his arrows of love, but due to said near-car-hitting scenario, the two teens never locked eyes and thus they’ve been adrift in the world without a link to their true soulmate. No wonder their subsequent relationships have all ended horribly!
Well, there’s only one thing to do, obviously, and that’s descend into the mortal realm and bulldoze the two wayward humans together so they can achieve true happiness, and so Aphrodite can smack Athena in her smug face. Everybody wins, right?
Honestly, this is where things started to get bizarre and a little uncomfortable. Mostly because the way Aphrodite wriggles into a position of influence in both Rebecca and her car-driving soulmate’s lives is by mysteriously displacing and then replacing their therapists. Rebecca is seeing one because she’s struggling with writer’s block and the soul-sucked feeling that comes with it (and this book does have one of the best descriptions of writer’s block I’ve ever read) and also, in the wake of her breakup, her childhood imaginary friend has reappeared. Alright. Kooky. Fair enough I guess.
The soulmate, John, has obsessive compulsive disorder. Actually and truly—the symptoms are detailed in his introductory chapter (switching to third person as narrator number three, weirdly) and the psychiatrist that his angry girlfriend (also sufficiently awful to make way for a love interest) sends him to diagnoses him and they start discussing treatment. And I have honestly never seen that before in a novel: OCD as a real issue, a serious thing, not just used as in “oh I have to keep my desk clean haha I’m so OCD”. And John was suitably moved by it, while not having it define his entire character. It was fascinating and I was quite proud.
And then Aphrodite took over as fake therapist, clearly knowing nothing about such petty mortal things and having no interest in helping him. Which was definitely written to be funny, which just didn’t sit right with me. Then again, neither did the idea of gods manipulating the feelings of people to use them as pawns in their own self-serving game, but it happens willy-nilly over the last third of the book.
Not even to speak of the weird pacing, the last segment of the story is a chaos of Eros shooting the wrong man and Aphrodite almost sabotaging her own plot because Rebecca’s soulmate looks like Adonis (or at least Adonis’ scruffy older brother who hasn’t worked out in a while, to paraphrase Eros. But really!! They played that cliché totally straight!! I’m not sure if I’m mad or impressed) and sad stories of relationships disintegrating, only for Rebecca and John to bump into each other miraculously then skip several years to an undisclosed Happy Ever After.
The entire book is filled with, nay, built upon, Rebecca’s musings about the state of love in the modern world, whether romantic love is a farce to begin with, whether fairy tales and romance novels are made to delude people and sell them a false dream, whether it’s worth looking for The One or if you’re meant to measure different stages of life by the different partners you have along the way. And all that philosophy and inner struggle is cut off with a sledgehammer and everything is apparently solved by the flick of a magic arrow.
This was not a workshop so much as a brainwashing. There is miniscule development for the “soulmate” relationship that reinstates Aphrodite’s status. Rebecca and John were both interesting, well-built characters with layered and complex lives, pasts and personal dynamics, and I was genuinely interested in their development and struggles. Will Rebecca get her creativity and zest for life back? How is she affected by her momentarily-touched-on relationship with her disabled sister? Will John overcome his OCD? Raise his daughter as he wants to? And for Heaven’s sake, what are their lives like, now that they’ve fallen back together and are supposedly perfect for each other?
It’s a little tied-bow ending that suffocates any agency the characters had, and I’m not sure if I’m meant to be horrified or amused by how insignificant the actual lives, problems and dreams of the characters are in the hands of Aphrodite. Maybe that’s the point though: the final sentence of the book is Eros asking “Mortals—don’t they crack you up?” Higher beings are watching us on a screen while they bicker and eat dinner, and we are just a blip in their self-absorbed lives.
So maybe the end message is that we’re all just pawns to a greater power and no choice or desire we have is our own, meaning that yes, Rebecca was right and romantic love is in fact a construct to make us believe we deserve to be happy, because without that ideal to chase we’d have absolutely no personal or cosmic significance.
And this isn’t even to speak of the hugely annoying message that we all just need to find our soulmate and rise above the rabble of divorce and affairs and sadness. I can’t stand that message to begin with, and considering the amount of agency and interestingness it rips away from the characters, I’d almost prefer they kept breaking up and sleeping with each other—at least that’s the person’s choice.
I did not ask for this fun-looking little novel to give me existential fear. I doubt Marika Cobbold intended it to, the same way they probably intended Rebecca’s hallucinations and Aphrodite’s wild attempts to flirt with mortals to be amusing. I have absolutely no idea how to feel upon finishing this book, apart from deeply needing to issue warning about messing with Greek gods. Seriously, don’t do it. They’ll turn your life inside out when you’re their favourite, I can only imagine how little regard they’d treat someone they displeased…
I repeat: I did not ask for a romantic comedy to get so meta, philosophical, and cosmically horrifying. The co-op sales bin is truly full of surprises.
All silly Photoshopped/captioned images by me!