January 8, 2022

Review: Comfort Me with Apples

Comfort Me with Apples Comfort Me with Apples by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Catherynne M. Valente is a writer I like far better at shorter lengths. I couldn't finish her exhausting, over-the-top novel Space Opera, but I really liked her long novella/short novel collection of dead-superhero-girlfriends, The Refrigerator Monologues. The latter turned the unwelcome phenomenon of "fridging" inside out...just as this unsettling novella does to the story of (view spoiler) and patriarchal religion in general.

The creepiness begins with the very first sentence--I was made for him--and goes on from there, as the first several pages are vivid descriptions of Sophia's perfect house, perfect husband, and perfect life. But the cracks in this shining perfection soon start to show, from her discovery of a hairbrush holding coarse black hair completely unlike her own, to a fingerbone hidden in her kitchen knife holder, to her "friends" in Arcadia Gardens trying to gaslight her into disbelieving the evidence of her own eyes, to the question everyone keeps asking her: Are you happy, Sophia?

Of course she is. She is, isn't she? Until she and her husband go see a play in the Arcadia Gardens community theater which is a retelling of the day when they moved in and she realizes her neighbors are trying to tell her something...and her husband snaps at her, which he has never done before, and tells her he has to concentrate on his work (something dealing with animals) and won't be home that night. So she goes home and she tears her perfect house apart, and finds bones and desiccated organs and bottles of blood and locks of hair tied in ribbons--so many locks of hair that aren't hers, of dead women who came before. Then she runs away into the night and meets a stranger she has never before seen in Arcadia Gardens, who tells her what this perfect place and who her perfect husband really is.

I use the spoiler tag above, but I'm going to blow it open here, because Valente lays bare the horror that has always resided in the story of Adam and Eve (and Lilith), and the toxic masculinity most religions generate. It begins with the woman being made for the man instead of herself, and culminates in Adam's extensive loving descriptions of how his Father coddled him and pumped him full of entitlement, and didn't object when he murdered wife after wife, because "I deserve to be happy. I am the only man in the world and Eden was built for me! If I do not deserve happiness, who does?" At least Lilith manages to escape (it was her hair on the brush Sophia discovered) but unfortunately no one saves Sophia. The ending to this book is an utter downer, because the next wife is Eve, who repeats the same refrain: I was made for him.

I'm sure this will be a marmite book: other reviews I've seen have people either really love it or really hate it. I think it's a targeted gut punch, especially for people with religious backgrounds. (The author also creates a list of HOA rules for her chapter headings, but as they go along they devolve into tighter and increasingly absurd restrictions on behavior, which is an obvious analogy to what holy books--of whatever stripe--and higher-ups in religious hierarchies try to do to their followers.) At the end, it's enough to make the reader (or at least this reader) wish Lilith would return to Arcadia Gardens with a tank and a machine gun and lay waste to the place. "I was made for him," indeed. Fuck that.

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