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Leslie What's Olympic Games is a romantic comedy about one of the longest-running marital feuds ever—the relationship between the Greek gods Zeus and Hera. Set in the present, it opens with Hera in New York City, scheming to bring her long separation from Zeus to an end. Zeus, of course, has given up none of his philandering ways, but for the first time in history it appears he is not the only one to have strayed. In fact, Hera is pregnant, and is half-hoping that Zeus—when he realizes he is not the father—will be the jealous one this time around.

Unfortunately for his vengeful but oddly devoted wife, Zeus doesn't stick around long enough to realize that the adultery tables have been turned. He runs off to New England, driven by a sudden pressing need to track down Penelope, a certain naiad he wooed millennia earlier. The affair ended badly for Penelope—Zeus turned her into a cherry tree and then abandoned her.

Weakened by the ordeal of giving birth, burdened with an unusual baby and hunted by an avaricious doctor who wants to study her newborn son, Hera sets out in pursuit of Zeus.

In writing Olympic Games, Leslie What has remained true to the spirit of the Greek myths of old, and their portrayal of the gods. Her Zeus and Hera are self-centered and flighty, pursuing self-gratification to the exclusion of anything else. So distinctly inhuman are they, in fact, that they often fail to arouse any sympathy in readers. The task of making an emotional connection with the novel's audience therefore falls to a cast of mortal men: Alexander, a fry cook whom Hera lures into joining the pursuit of Zeus, Eddie, a sweet-tempered grocery clerk, and Possum, a reclusive artist. Like the heroes of old, these men find themselves caught in the midst of a struggle between gods, forced to pit their human strengths against the still-mighty powers—not to mention the moral weaknesses—of the immortals. The result is sometimes delightful, sometimes hilarious, and even occasionally heartbreaking.

Multifaceted in every sense of the word, Olympic Games is a heady brew of romance, humor, and unexpected tragedy. The best comedies have dark threads at their hearts, and this novel is no exception. Leslie What links the comforts and laughter of love to its inevitable sorrows: betrayal of trust, faltering affection, and every parent's worst nightmare—the loss of a child. Zeus and Hera, we learn, are the sole survivors of the Greek pantheon: all their offspring are long gone. This mutual loss has echoes in the book's other characters: Alexander—in essence the father of Hera's new child—has never recovered from the loss of a daughter, while gentle, sheltered Eddie is in the midst of a transformation that will change him into someone his over-protective father can no longer control.

That a comedic fantasy should contain such serious material should be a surprise to nobody. Though perhaps best known for her humorous short stories, Leslie What's intense and tragic "The Cost of Doing Business" was a Nebula Award winner in 1999, and her even her funniest short pieces have considerable bite.

Now, with this first novel, itself based on a shorter work ("The Goddess is Alive and, Well, Living in New York") What's experience shines. Olympic Games is fearless and smooth in style, less tentative than most first books by less seasoned writers. Its weaknesses are few and slender. Hera's narcissism is extremely alienating. The gods' failure to transcend their self-centered nature when the book reaches its crisis shows a tough-minded refusal to take the easy path on What's part. Unfortunately, it also makes it hard to believe that any accommodation Zeus and Hera reach with each other at the novel's end will lead them to any true changes in their relationship.

And speaking of the sexes, the gender dynamics of the book will not fail to intrigue. At times, What seems to be treading on a high wire, perhaps even wobbling. Olympic Games is entirely about traditionally feminine spheres of concern—pregnancy, motherhood, and holding together a relationship. Yet it lacks any significant female characters who are simply mortal. Hera is a goddess, Penelope a naiad: the lack of women creates a noticeable empty space, the one note missing in the novel's otherwise rich symphony.

Taking the balancing act to an even more dangerous extreme, What creates another prickly reality in Zeus. With his date-everyone, do-everything, please-myself good-natured mentality, he is a lot more fun than Hera. Even though she's doing the same thing, her fun comes at the expense of paying attention to her child. On some level it seems more acceptable for a male god to be fun-loving and self-indulgent; it's cute, whereas when Hera behaves similarly with a baby in the background, it seems petty and wrong.

What invites readers to enjoy this double-standard, only to whip it back on them, for Zeus's treatment of Penelope eventually divests him of his entertaining sheen, verging well into stalker territory. Sadly, though, it is hard not to feel disappointment that the book's chief source of fun and laughs has behaved in such an insupportable fashion.

Olympic Games is one of those books that will bring its readers to laughter and tears, a rare enough thing that it would be enough reason, by itself, to recommend reading this novel. Polished and witty, it combines Zeus's seductiveness with Hera's passionate heart, creating a tale that is entirely unforgettable.


A.M. Dellamonica photo


A.M. Dellamonica's recent stories include "The Town on Blighted Sea," published in Strange Horizons. A 2006 Canada Council Grant recipient, she teaches writing through the UCLA Extension Writers' Program and writes book reviews. She maintains a web site at http://www.alyxdellamonica.com. Her first novel, Indigo Springs, will be released by Tor in early 2009.
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