Whatever you read about Catherynne Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues (2017) beforehand (except this review, natch), ignore it. It’s not superhero fiction. It’s not at heart tragic stories of women being treated poorly by men. It’s not a lot of boo-hooing, woe-is-me, where-is-my-recognition from the ladies who prepared all the feasts in Lord of the Rings. What it is, is vigorous, engrossing, human, and yes, fateful stories of everyday women, with the sugar and confetti of superhero tropes sprinkled over their lives in excellent, metaphorical fashion. (In comic books, the opposite is typically true.) Written in Valente’s vibrant/hilarious/cynical/delightful diction, it’s also a superb set of stories.
The perfect opener, “Paige Embry Is Dead” sets the scene by telling Embry’s disastrous story. A promising research student, Embry makes the mistake of showing off some of her work on volatile metals to her boyfriend, mutating him into Kid Mercury in the process. Evil lurking in the lab’s wings unbeknownst to Embry, her research is cut short by tragedy—one that even Kid Mercury cannot help with. What is likely the best story in the collection, “The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Pauline Ketch” tells the story of a self-destructive person chasing what’s even worse for them. The bad girl riding with the wrong crowd and too proud to think differently, Pauline Ketch is the girl with starry eyes for James Dean on a motorcycle through her version of hell. Valente capturing lightning in a bottle, the character voice in this tale is pitch perfect.
Aquagirl meets her aquaboy, “The Ballad of Blue Bayou” somehow combines undersea punk rock, superheroes, and parentage into a successful tale of one woman dealing with male hubris—both the expected and unexpected varieties. The slow decline of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed country girl, “Daisy Green Says I Love You” takes the reader down the spiral of one woman’s life as she takes ever more desperate chances at making herself and others happy, and subsequent arrival in Deadtown.
About a female superhero, “The Heat Death of Julia Ash” tells an X-Men style story about a woman with mutant powers who is kept under lock and key “for her own good”. She breaks free, but perhaps not in a fashion she would repeat. A full-blown romance turned upside down when the boyfriend discovers a secret power hidden within his graphic design paints, “Happy Birthday, Samantha Dane” literally and figuratively closes the refrigerator door on the book. The girlfriend (Samantha Dane) becoming a sought after photographer in the aftermath, her only problem is that the city’s major art sponsor wants to push the value of her work to the limit. The limit, he finds.
On one hand it’s perfectly clear Valente is having fun with the book’s premise. Batman, Spiderman, Superman et al’s stories full of gaping holes waiting to be filled in human fashion, The Refrigerator Monologues does just that. Where comic books are mainly a superficial, shallow medium, Valente makes sure to flesh her characters out in skin and bone, and by rendering the women as real people, makes her point.
Somewhere between a novel (according to isfdb) and a collection (according to the publisher), The Refrigerator Monologues is a novilection located—yes, located, that word sounds good—around the central premise of Deadtown, a place where the wives and lovers, girlfriends and sweethearts of superheroes and villains end up after they die. A bardo cum purgatory, Deadtown also is a frame, linking the lives of the six women who tell their tales. Rather than hobbit wives getting together a feast, the six come from a much wider spectrum: scientist to photographer, punk rocker to black-leather moll, etc. Politically motivated, Valente nevertheless avoids many of the potholes of modern culture wars through the bloody-minded portrayal of living, breathing women. While perhaps a bit too tragic (i.e. more passive than active), the colorful realism of the women’s lives, coupled with Valente’s amazing character voices, makes this book a real winner—a far sight more intelligent than the majority of comic books.
Note: I listened to the audiobook version of this… novilection, and can say Karis Campbell’s reading was amazing. The fact I so rarely mention audiobook narrations should give testament to how much she wows.
A short but powerful novel/collection, the following are the six stories merged in Dead Town in The Refrigerator Monologues:
Paige Embry Is Dead
The Heat Death of Julia Ash
The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Pauline Ketch
The Ballad of Blue Bayou
Daisy Green Says I Love You
Happy Birthday, Samantha Drake