Cover Image: The Refrigerator Monologues

The Refrigerator Monologues

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Member Reviews

I love everything I've read from Catherynne Valente, and this book is certainly no exception. Great read!
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A very clever, entertaining set of vignettes based on a pretty brilliant theme. As entertaining as they were, though, the novel felt incomplete. I would have liked for one or more of them to be expanded a little bit. Not completely satisfying but enjoyable nonetheless.
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The nitty-gritty: A powerful collection of loosely tied together stories of the women who fell in love with superheroes—and died because of it.

I never wanted children. Let’s get that straight up top. All I ever wanted to do was to drink beer, play my horn, and ride mutant armadillos till the end of the world. But you don’t get to hit those high notes when you’re Queen of something. Hard to scream-sing fuck the man authority is deathpuke anarchy in Atlantis when your mom is, like, the entire government.

Reading a Catherynne M. Valente novel is always a treat for me. Her writing is the equivalent of listening to edgy slam poetry in a smoky bar, but in prose form. No one writes quite like her, and if you like the paragraph I’ve quoted above, then you really do need to pick up one of her books. Even better, her world building is some of the most unique I’ve ever read. I highly recommend Radiance if you have an open mind when it comes to quirky science fiction worlds.

But getting back to the book at hand, Valente once again proves she has extreme writing chops, an imagination that won’t quit, and a penchant for poking fun at tropes. The Refrigerator Monologues is a slim book comprised of six short stories, each one told by a girlfriend/side kick/lover of a male superhero. The kicker? All six women are dead and now reside in Deadtown, where they’ve formed a support group called The Hell Hath Club. They gather at the Lethe Café and take turns telling their stories of woe. Valente takes characters from familiar superhero stories, like Batman, Superman, etc., but gives them different names. Still, readers who are up on superhero lore will recognize them immediately.

In one of my favorite stories, for example, it was easy to identify Pauline Ketch as Harley Quinn, the brash and crazy (literally, she’s in an insane asylum) girl from Batman. Polly, as she calls herself, had one of my favorite voices, upbeat and slightly manic even as she’s telling us about her horrible life. We already know how Polly ends up—dead—but Valente goes into intimate detail about her weird and destructive relationship with Mr. Punch, and Polly’s death—like each of the other girls’ deaths—is almost anticlimactic (“And then he killed me. The end.”)

Each of the stories is preceded by a short interlude chapter that ties everything together, so the reader has the feeling that, like the book cover, each character is taking her turn at the mic, telling her sad story to an appreciative and sympathetic audience. The overall feeling was one of intimacy, although I have to admit that after hearing about the terrible lives of these six women, I had had enough. They all seemed to take their injustices in stride—beatings, verbal abuse, abandonment and more—and while I felt for them, I also wanted to shake each one and yell “What the hell are you thinking??” Which is the point, I guess. Women in the male dominated world of the superhero always seem to get the short end of the stick.

The book is lightly illustrated by Annie Wu, whose style fits perfectly with the comic book vibe. I loved having some visuals to go along with the narratives, and Wu nails the aesthetic.

What I didn’t get enough of, though, was Valente’s amazing world of Deadtown, which seriously, I could read a whole novel about. I want to go there myself, well, provided it’s only a short visit!

But in the end? Nothing is really resolved. Polly, Paige, Julia, Blue Bayou, Daisy and Samantha are still dead. In the final story, Samantha Dane reveals that she was killed and stuffed into a refrigerator, describing a term coined by comic book writer Gail Simone—“fridging”—which brings us back to the theme of this book. Valente’s characters may seem to be taking things in stride in the afterlife, but deep down they’re hurting and angry. The Refrigerator Monologues will make you uncomfortable, but maybe that's a good thing.

Big thanks to the publisher and Wunderkind PR for supplying a review copy.
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Catherynne Valente tackles gendered superhero tropes with this collection of six stories. The girls of the Hell Hath Club are dead, but they’ve found each other for company is the strange expanse of Deadtown. They gather together, drink Styx water, and commiserate about their lives and deaths. Superheroines, girlfriends of superheroes, supervillainesses… they all got the short end of the stick.

I’m not super knowledgeable about comic books. I’ve seen some movies, read a few issues of Ms. Marvel, but that’s pretty much it. However, I could still tell which comic book characters most of the dead girls were supposed to be. The first one, a scientist who accidentally gives her boyfriend superpowers, is clearly based off of some girlfriend of Spiderman. The extremely powerful, only woman on her team heroine with psychic powers sounded a lot like a certain X-Man. An off kilter villainess with an impressive but misplaced loyalty to her man could be no one but Harley Quinn. Another’s the wife of Aquaman, not quite dead but slipped out of her asylum to search Deadtown for her murdered son. Of the six women, there were only two I couldn’t connect to any Marvel or DC characters. One is the famous girl in the fridge, who I’ve heard of before but don’t know much about. According to other reviewers, the last is a riff off of Karen Page, who I only know from the Netflix series.

Each woman gets the chance to tell her story, and short chapters in between bridge the gap from one to the other. It’s not a long book — at only 160 pages, it’s more novella than novel. I think the length was just about right for it. I don’t think there was anything that could be cut, and I don’t see what an expansion would add.

At the same time, I was never quite impressed by The Refrigerator Monologues. I think it’s tackling an important subject, but it’s more giving voice to the women stuck in bad tropes than subverting them altogether. There’s not an overarching plot. The women don’t get vengeance or fulfillment, they just get a voice and the chance to share their stories with one another. That’s a valuable thing, but I didn’t find it entirely satisfactory. In the end, I felt like the only really new thing The Refrigerator Monologues was bringing to the table was the quirky, off beat setting of Deadtown itself.

Maybe I would have enjoyed The Refrigerator Monologues more if I knew more about comic books. Or maybe my expectations were simply too high.
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Confession time.... I'm pretty much superhero illiterate. I didn't grow up with them, and they've just never been my thing (well, who knows, maybe they could be if I gave them the chance). However, I've heard quite a thing or two about the horrible treatment female characters often face in the genre, which is one of the reasons I was so eager to read The Refrigerator Monologues.

The other reason was the author, Catherynne Valente. If her name doesn't ring a bell, she wrote The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (really quite the mouthful), an absolutely amazing and totally whimiscal middle grade (though Goodreads thinks it's YA for some reason) book that you should really check out.

Valente has this wonderful and distinctive imagination that really shines through in all her work. The Refrigerator Monologues' my first adult book of her's, so I was a bit worried about whether or not I'd enjoy her style as much outside the MG genre. Turns out there was no reason to worry. The world she paints in this collection of short stories is filled with just as much whimsy and fresh originality, though this book definitely does have a more adult tone to it (well duh Kai...).

Each of the six main characters has a clear and easily distinguishable voice, and all of their worlds and lives are pretty well fleshed out considering the limitations of the short story format. Apparently each of them are based off DC/Marvel women, though I didn't realize this fact while reading because I'm completely clueless. Anyways, here's a Goodreads review that lists them all out, just in case you're curious.

Sometimes I did feel that The Refrigerator Monologues was a bit too heavy handed with some of its feminist messages, but then again, I don't really know much about the comic industry and how it treats women, so this could be something that's sorely needed.
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I love the concept of this book which gives voice to those sidelined females in comic books. It creates fleshed out characters that have motivations and thoughts and intriguing stories all their own. It shows they are something more than just a footnote in the story of a super hero.

And this book is all that, which is wonderful. However, this is going to be a hard one for me to review. When it comes down to it, while I love the concept and the general stories, the style itself is just not a style that works well for me. That does not mean it’s poorly executed by any means. This is a book where the type of humor just really fell flat for me. This is not an unusual struggle for me, it happens often enough I can recognize when I have issue due to the style rather than the writer’s ability to craft a story. I can also recognize the areas that this book fell flat for me may very well be what makes it a stand out in a very positive way for others.

The book covers 6 different protagonists, each one with a unique story and situation (often a familiar one, though all names have been changed). It is a fun concept. And the way all of these chapters are tied together is through the Hell Hath Club. It is a an afterlife hangout where all of these women can go and share there stories.

And when it comes down to it, the entire point of these stories is not to make people laugh, but to learn to appreciate how often women in the standard stories are there only to progress the male story line. They are merely dispensable stepping stones that are given little thought or depth, just a byline in the story of the male protagonist. Valente finally gives them a voice and the ability to stand up and be known. It makes a statement that and gives people something to think about the next time they come across a super hero story with women that could easily join the Hell Hath Club.
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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.
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