Book Review: The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Superheroes
Publisher: Saga Press (June 6, 2017)
Length: 160 pages
Ever wonder what it’s like to be a girlfriend or wife of a superhero? The answer is not so glamorous in The Refrigerator Monologues, a new book containing a series of linked short stories by Catherynne M. Valente. Inspired by “Women in Refrigerators”, a term used to describe a trope used in many comic book plots involving the deaths, disablement, and disenfranchising of female characters to forward a male superhero protagonist’s storyline, this clever collection offers both a darkly humorous commentary on the subject as well as a vicious lampoon on these kinds of story arcs as a whole.
Meet the six women of the Hell Hath Club, all inspired by well-known characters in the DC or Marvel universes so that even passing fans of comics should recognize some of their origins. There’s Paige Embry, the brilliant and driven college student who saw her bright future snuffed out when she was thrown off a bridge by her superhero boyfriend’s arch nemesis. Gwen Stacy anyone? Or how about the powerful telepath and telekinetic, taken away at a young age for a school for special powered people to fight another group of special powered people by an ostensibly well-meaning professor, who later puts Jean Gre—I mean, Julia Ash on an otherwise all-male superhero team called the “Millennial Men”? And of course there’s also Samantha Dane, based off of Alexandra Dewitt, the girlfriend of Kyle Rayner whose gruesome manner of death in the Green Lantern comics is what inspired the “refrigerated” term in the first place.
The tales go on like this, each one exploring the background of a female character who has been killed, depowered, or generally dismissed in favor of the male superheroes (and in one case, a supervillain) in their lives. Now the six of them meet regularly in the afterlife, hanging out at a quaint little joint called the Lethe Café where they share their stories, support each other, and listen to the gargoyles bands play punk rock.
The Refrigerator Monologues was a quick read, offering brief but plentiful examples to illustrate the concerning trend in comic books of having bad things happen to female characters as merely a plot device. While these are entertaining stories, I’m afraid there’s also very little lightness to them. After all, the women portrayed here are meant to represent the victims of “lazy writing” and “stock storylines”, most of them reduced to playing second fiddle to their male superhero counterparts or as pet causes for their romantic partners. Valente shines a harsh, subversive light on the injustice and absurdity of these situations, from Gwen Stacy whose death has somehow become an inextricable and defining moment in the life of Spider-Man, to Harley Quinn who is forever standing resolutely by the Joker even after the bajillionth time he leaves her to rot in Arkham. The short vignettes here capture both the tragedy and comedy of the women’s fates by putting readers in their shoes.
I also thought the length and format of the book was perfect for the author’s vision. It is clear anything less would have failed to deliver the same level of poignancy, while a longer book containing more stories would have run the risk of being repetitive. The writing style here is very distinctive, aiming for biting humor and as much as snarky finesse, though after a while I found it difficult to distinguish the different voices of the women for they all seemed to speak with the same mannerisms. By the end, I was also feeling a little weary and heartsick from the underlying tones of sadness and dejection. For you see, this isn’t a book that “fixes” things, nor was it ever meant to be—I think Valente put it best in an article I once came across where she said (and I’m paraphrasing based on memory), “I might not be able to swoop in to save the damsel, but I can turn on the mic to let her scream.” You might read these stories expecting more anger and indignation from the characters, but ultimately the Hell Hath Club isn’t so much about fury than it is about a place where its members can come together to vent, grieve, commiserate, or simply to tell their personal stories and be heard.
In closing, I also want to give special mention to the world-building of Deadtown. Aside from being the most unique and interesting aspect of the book, this brilliant setting ties all the characters’ stories together and gives this collection a special touch. Being dead isn’t easy—you’re basically stuck wearing whatever god-awful outfit you were buried in for all eternity, and there are bizarre rules like how all food can only be made from plants and animals that have gone extinct, or that the only books available are those that have been forgotten to time, etc. Still, it isn’t all bad. Residents of Deadtown share the afterlife with a population of friendly gargoyles who sure know how to have a good time!
Finally, you certainly don’t need to be familiar with comics or comic book characters to appreciate this book, but knowing some of the context would probably help. Sharply droll and acerbic, The Refrigerator Monologues offers a look at the superhero genre from a rare but important perspective. Whether these stories make you laugh or cry, pound your fists or roll your eyes, at the end of the day they’re bound to evoke emotions and start some conversations. And sometimes, that’s all that really matters.