Carolina Francesca Santoro is a middle-aged businesswoman with a problem: her accountant. Thanks to his incompetence, she now owes a sizeable sum to the IRS. Desperately searching for ways to boost her bakery’s profits, she stumbles across The Italian Goddess Cookbook in the shop across the road and tries out the pizza alla Romana, even though the instructions are as much spell as recipe. Next thing Lina knows, she’s in a much younger body, in a place that is definitely not Oklahoma, being offered a deal by Demeter herself. You see, the underworld is having a bit of a morale problem, and she’s decided the place needs a goddess of its own (translation: she wants the prayers for the dead directed at somebody else). And the obvious candidate - her daughter Persephone - is out of the question until she’s done a bit of growing up. So she offers Lina a chance to save her bakery while raising the spirits of the dead (sorry!): trade places - and bodies - with the Goddess of Spring. For six months Persephone will breathe new life into Pani del Goddess, while Lina will use her life experience to whip the underworld into shape. And she needn’t worry about Hades – he’s quite boring, really.
So Lina descends into the realm of the dead, all the while reminding herself to forget that they’re dead. That task becomes a little easier when she meets Euridyce (yes, that Euridyce), a friendly little spirit who quickly becomes devoted to ‘Persephone’. And it’s not long before the new Goddess is making an impression, disconcerting Hades at their first meeting when his fire-snorting dread steeds fall head over hooves in love with her (and she later charms Cerberus - all three heads of him). He’s further puzzled by the interest that a goddess he always believed self-centred shows in his realm. For while the Underworld might not have much of a reputation, it’s far more spectacular than anything on earth, and Lina is fascinated by it all - and by Hades. Far from being boring, he’s actually desperately lonely. Having witnessed the connection of soulmates, he’s determined not to settle for anything less himself. No easy task, since immortals can never truly belong to the Underworld and mortals have an unfortunate tendency to run screaming when they discover his identity. Except, of course, for Lina. But romance comes to an abrupt halt when Demeter whisks Lina back to Tulsa, where Persephone has made over not just the bakery but her borrowed life - complete with youthful new wardrobe, toyboy . . . and the recipe for ambrosia cream cheese! Business is booming, but life just isn’t the same. Then six months later, Persephone reappears. Could the timeshare plan she proposes work? And could Lina’s soulmate really be a Batman-esque Lord of the Dead?
After a run of the dull, the frustrating, and the mediocre, this book was the ideal pick-me-up; wonderfully imaginative and dead funny (once again, I couldn’t help myself). I wish my mind could work like that: take something familiar and turn it upside down (while cheerfully throwing reality out the window). I’ve long been fascinated by ancient mythology, so it was a treat to read about so many legendary figures from such a different perspective: a scheming Dido, a laugh-inducing explanation of just why Orpheus looked back, and Apollo’s dented ego when he discovered that a mere mortal was more interested in his horses than in him. There was also plenty that I never previously knew: the nature of Tartarus; the rivers of the Underworld; the fact that, yes, there is a difference between a daimon and a demon. I loved Lina, with her mental movie references, her determination to make the best of a very bizarre job and dedication to the people (ex-people?) under her temporary rule, and her love of animals. (Though I’m really not sure I could look at Cerberus and see just a larger version - in partial triplicate - of an ordinary pet bulldog.) I couldn’t help liking Persephone, even if she was a bit on the frivolous side. And Hades ... I’ve never watched a Batman movie in my life, but at last I begin to understand the fascination (and boy can he decorate!). It’s hard to picture an immortal god being anything less than perfectly assured, but Cast pulls it off; he actually seems quite human.
I did have one point of contention. Lina was the perfect choice for Demeter because she spoke Italian. But Hades’s realm is the ancient Roman Underworld – shouldn’t everyone have spoken Latin? (Although I do appreciate that a modern heroine fluent in that language might have been a big ask.)