The Refrigerator Monologues
Writer: Catherynne M. Valente
Artist: Annie Wu
Publisher: Saga Press
A review by Stacy Dooks
Full disclosure: this is a review I’ve been having some difficulty with. Since reading The Refrigerator Monologues I’ve been mulling over my feelings on the work as a whole. I have been trying to find the best way to introduce the themes and situations of the book to potential readers while illustrating my own journey with the novel from my initial reaction through to my final verdict. This book is a tightrope, but is it one that Catherynne Valente has crossed successfully?
Walk with me a bit and we’ll discuss it.
The Refrigerator Monologues is an anthology book about women in a shared superhero universe. They belong to the Hell Hath Club and meet every week to share the stories of their lives… and their deaths.
Some were heroes, some were villains, some were the girlfriends of heroes but they all have one thing in common: they all died. These are their stories. If there’s one underlying theme to the various tales told within the book, it’s that being a woman in a superhero universe can be awful. If you’re not the target of insane villains looking to hurt the hero or the hench-wench of a monstrous individual who doesn’t even understand concern or affection as a concept, you’re a heroine whose powers are suddenly too much for their patriarchal, condescending comrades or even their equally heroic spouses. While the majority of the book is black comedy, when things get dark, they get dark.
It can be a challenge to tell a story that critiques a beloved medium without it seeming like merely an attack piece or medicine, but Valente manages the task with Athenian skill.
Inspired by Gail Simone’s “Women in Refrigerators” website, the book is an exploration of the role of women in superhero fiction and how utterly imbalanced and unfair it can be. The greatest compliment I can give the book is that it made me feel the molar-grinding frustration of the protagonists as they told their stories.
It’s difficult to determine a favorite. If I had to pick, I’d say “The Ballad of Blue Bayou” is the one that resonated the most. Each of the narrators in the book are based on comic book characters you’ll likely recognize, but familiarity with the cape and tights set is not a requirement to enjoy the stories presented here. Annie Wu’s artwork makes for a great compliment to Valente’s writing. It gives you a nice showcase piece for each of the narrators as they tell their respective tales.
When I began reading the book I found that the bitter, jaded tone of the narrator and their slightly too-cool-for-school turn of phrase was jarring. As I continued to read, I realized that this front of seeming nonchalance was largely there as a defense mechanism for the narrators. It was a way to cover up their respective pain. By the end of the book I understood, and I appreciated it all the more.
Check it Out. The Refrigerator Monologues will provoke you; it will unsettle you; it will even disturb you at times, but it’s definitely worth it. This is Valente’s first foray into superhero fiction, but she’s created a world I wouldn’t mind revisiting. Recommended.