4 of 5 stars
In 1999, comics writer Gail Simone came up with "Women In Refrigerators," a comic book trope where female characters are injured or killed as a plot device to move the hero's story arc forward. I know she didn't expect Catherynne M. Valente to write a lovely little book about this idea eighteen years later, but this novella, or maybe short novel, both brings this repulsive idea to life and turns it inside out, to memorable effect.
I've been iffy about most things I've read from Valente so far. Sometimes her prose seems lush and lyrical, and simply purple and overwrought at other times. That is definitely not the case with this book: her writing here is tight and punchy, and the voices of the characters shine through. This is a series of six interlocking stories set in Valente's comic-book universe, where six (sometimes thinly disguised) wives and girlfriends of superheroes tell their stories. These women are all dead. Now they are members of the Hell Hath Club, and they meet in the Lethe Cafe in Deadtown to tell their stories, the deaths that provided fuel for the men left behind. As Valente puts it, in three scorching sentences that are the heart of this book:
I belong in the refrigerator. Because the truth is, I'm just food for a superhero. He'll eat up my death and get the energy he needs to become a legend.
(I'm trying to figure out which current or past characters these fictional women represent. Paige Embry seems to be Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man's dead girlfriend; in the second story, "The Heat Death of Julia Ash," by far the most unsettling story in the book, Julia Ash is apparently Jean Grey from the X-Men; Pauline Ketch, with her terrible dysfunctional relationship, is obviously Harley Quinn; Bayou is Mera, wife of Aquaman; Samantha Dane, in the last story in the book, is the stand-in for Alexandra Dewitt, the girlfriend of Green Lantern who was killed and stuffed in a refrigerator, thus starting this whole thing. The only one I'm not sure about is Daisy Green? From various comments I've read, her analogue is Karen Page, but I don't really know who that is.)
This is a powerful little book. It tears apart the idiotic "women in refrigerators" trope and shows it for the sad, sexist fail in storytelling it really is. (Yes, I know it's not restricted to superhero universes--vigilante tales often start with the deaths of the hero's wife and family to send him on a revenge quest to slaughter those responsible, although the recent film John Wick turned this on its head a bit by sending the retired assassin after the people who killed his puppy. Thus pointing out the stupidity of the entire idea.) It's the most tightly written story I've seen from Catherynne Valente, with the novella/short novel length being exactly right. It's well-thought-out and entertaining, but at the same time it gives you a lot to think about. Most likely you'll never look at a comic book story the same way again.