In these uncertain times, our yearning for the supernatural has never been stronger. From Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite to Rich Riordan's children's series about the demi-god Percy Jackson, we long to lay our woes on gods behaving badly. Like Marie Philips's charming comedy of that name, Marika Cobbold's sixth novel is about divinity interfering in the affairs of men.
Aphrodite's favourite author, the best-selling romantic novelist Rebecca Finch, has fallen out of love with love. Newly-awakened from a toxic relationship, Rebecca tells her god-daughter Zoe that the only thing she can think of to say to couples who get engaged is "Better luck next time."
Aphrodite is seriously concerned. With soaring divorce rates and a growing number of single-parent families, she has been relying on Rebecca to keep her cult going; and when Rebecca makes a Ratner-like speech on TV, describing romantic fiction as "simplistic fairy tales", the goddess of love is in danger of being demoted on Mount Olympus. Her only hope is to make Rebecca find the perfect man.
Twenty years before, on the fateful night when Eros shot his arrow at them both, their eyes never met; as a result, poor Adonis-like John has been wedded to his work, breaking female hearts. Now an unhappy barrister specialising in divorce who just happens to be consulting the same therapist as Rebecca for his OCD, John is such a touching hero in his anxiety and kindliness that you actually care far more for him than for the heroine.
How Rebecca and John fall in love once Aphrodite steps in as their therapist is pure romantic comedy, but underlying it is the same acerbity that made Shooting Butterflies and Guppies for Tea such an unexpected joy. Those who find the concept a little too whimsical will still respond to Cobbold's dialogue and understanding of disillusionment. This is a novel as much preoccupied with the morality and aesthetics involved in romantic fiction as with the hard work of real love.
"Why the ennui and the quiet desperation, why the middle-aged affairs, why the hunger for your books?" Zoe asks. Rebecca, used to being despised and patronised by fools (much in the way Joanna Trollope is) tries to collect stories of happy marriages to rekindle her creative flame, only to find that every one has been undermined by selfishness, small children, laziness and unkindness. She also has mental problems of her own, in that she is haunted by Coco the invisible clown, who forces her to confront the delusions she has been living with.
Aphrodite's Workshop For Reluctant Lovers shows us the pain of romance, while also proving why it is essential. Mordantly witty, touching and perceptive, it's the perfect gift for Valentine's Day, one of those rare books that consoles even as it tells us the truth about love.
Amanda Craig's 'Hearts & Minds' is published in May by Little, BrownReuse content