The Hamilton Spectator

To Hell and Back

The classic Greek myth of Persephone gets an update with a pharma tycoon who lures an aimless slacker to his private island.

- By MOLLY YOUNG MOLLY YOUNG is a book critic for The Times and a contributi­ng writer for The Times Magazine.

QUICK: WHAT DO Edith Wharton, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Geoffrey Chaucer and the Australian experiment­al rock duo Dead Can Dance have in common? Answer: All have been inspired by the tale of Persephone, Demeter and Hades. The art resulting from this inspiratio­n has ranged from prose to poetry to haunting darkwave jams.

Joining these luminaries (and still others, Ezra Pound and Dante Gabriel Rossetti among them) is Rachel Lyon, whose second novel, “Fruit of the Dead,” turns Persephone into a pink-haired slacker and Hades into a hybrid of Jeffrey Epstein and Richard Sackler.

As with any story that has been around for thousands of years, there are many versions of the origin myth. Lyon’s chapter titles reproduce lines from Hugh G. Evelyn-White’s translatio­n of the Homeric hymn to Demeter, which is a superb blueprint to follow.

In case you’re dusty on anonymous poems of the seventh century B.C., the hymn goes like this: A young and gorgeous Persephone is flouncing around a meadow when she spots a narcissus flower. Leaning over to pluck the blossom, she’s startled when the earth yawns open and Hades, god of the underworld, pops out like Freddy Krueger. He abducts Persephone. The girl’s mother, Demeter, wanders the earth in a rage searching for her lost daughter. (I’m skipping the hymn’s B and C plots, as well as its many descriptio­ns of hairdos and bosoms.)

Hades, meanwhile, tricks or coaxes his abductee into eating a pomegranat­e seed. When Demeter reunites with her daughter after a wearying journey, Persephone admits to swallowing the magic fruit. Terrible mistake. By a mechanism not elucidated in the text, the pomegranat­e gaffe means that Hades gets to keep Persephone as his bride for one-third of each year, while the rest of the time she is permitted to rejoin her mother in Olympus.

In Lyon’s capable update, Persephone becomes Cory Ansel, a recent high school graduate who has been accepted to zero colleges and is working as a camp counselor to kill time until her next move. Demeter — the goddess of grain — becomes Emer Ansel, an executive at an agricultur­al NGO. Hades is Rolo Picazo,

the billionair­e C.E.O. of a pharmaceut­ical company that manufactur­es a drug similar to OxyContin.

On the last night of camp, Cory smokes weed with her fellow counselors and experience­s wonderment about the human brain — a “corrugated ball of tender muck, synapses snapping like microscopi­c firecracke­rs,” in one of Lyon’s more bedazzled sentences. The philosophi­zing is interrupte­d when Rolo, who has come to fetch his son, invites Cory to dinner.

In a span of minutes the older man displays a United Nations’ worth of flags, all of them red. First he asks Cory if she’s a model. Then he insists on hand-feeding her a forkful of bacon. Finally he offers her a lucrative and ill-defined job contingent upon the immediate signing of an NDA. Run, Cory, run!

Cory does not run. Instead, she e-signs the NDA at the dinner table and allows herself to be spirited to a private island called Little Île des Bienheureu­x — Island of the Blessed — where the living is easy, the cellphone service spotty and the WiFi seemingly absent. Rolo keeps on hand a supply of his company’s star product, a

sustained-release painkiller with euphoric effects, and generously mixes them into cocktails for Cory to sip by the pool. When she asks if the painkiller is addictive, he shruggily tells her that people can get addicted to anything — “sex, alcohol, chocolate, video games, you name it.”

Cory accepts this nonrespons­e. She’s a bit slow when it comes to connecting causes with effects, a bit too quick to reach for a cliché when interpreti­ng experience. In other words, hardly a scintillat­ing intellect. Fiction is so crammed with precocious teenagers that Cory’s photoreali­stic ordinarine­ss is somewhat refreshing, and it makes Rolo’s pursuit of her all the slimier. Lyon doesn’t gild the relationsh­ip with poetic notions about two kindred souls straining to bridge an age gap. Cory has youth and beauty; Rolo has cash and a sex drive. It’s a transactio­n as old as time.

Chapters jump between Cory and her mother, with Cory’s sections written in a close third person and Emer’s in the first person. Even though the reader is

given direct access, literarily speaking, to Emer’s maternal wrath, the character never comes to life. She’s too much a cartoon of progressiv­e hypocrisy. After 20 years helming a do-gooder organizati­on, Emer is shocked (shocked!) to discover that their proprietar­y strain of blightresi­stant rice not only fails to grow, but seems to destroy every inch of paddy it touches. Emer self-soothes by ruminating masochisti­cally on the “colonialis­t wrongheade­dness” of her job and listening to guided meditation­s.

The Homeric hymn concludes with all parties committing to a tolerable sacrifice: Nobody triumphs, everybody compromise­s, Persephone grows up. It is difficult (if titillatin­g) to imagine a contempora­ry American edition that would go full Greek, ending with Emer and Rolo agreeing, like Demeter and Hades, to treat the contested adolescent as a timeshare. Lyon doesn’t go that route. Instead, she twists the tale just enough to needle our conception­s of coercion and desire without quite defying them.

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