Valente is an author I’ve seen quoted often by my fellow bloggers, and the impression I received from their reviews was that of a writer with a good number of narrative “voices” at her disposal. So far, my experience with her works had been limited to a short story, so that I did not know much about what to expect here: Comfort Me With Apples taught me, once again, that going into a book with no expectations whatsoever can give me much more than I hoped for.
From the very opening, this novella inspires a sense of ominous foreboding, listing the very strict regulations enforced by the gated community of Arcadia Gardens, where the main character, Sophia, lives: those regulations (which can be found at the start of each chapter) made me think more or a prison than a safe enclave where families could live their lives in comfort and peace, and once we are made privy to Sophia’s thoughts that sense of foreboding intensifies. Those thoughts are focused on how happy she is, how wonderful the life her perfect husband offers her, how beautiful her house and friendly her neighbors: it was impossible for me not to think about the Stepford Wives as alarm bells started sounding with increasingly loud tones, Sophia’s passivity and unquestioning acceptance of her situation making her look more like a well-programmed automaton than a flesh-and-blood creature.
And yet the perfect picture begins to crack, almost imperceptibly, as Sophia finds a lock of hair – clearly not her own – in a dresser drawer she had never opened before: a minor incident, granted, but one that keeps preying on her mind and starts to shatter her hypnosis-like complacency. The find is only the first of many, each one more sinister than the other, in a growing buildup that together with the husband’s prohibition of visiting the basement and the village dwellers’ seeming obsession with Sophia’s happiness made me think about some dark secret concerning that often absent, literally larger-than-life husband: at this point I was thinking more about Bluebeard than the Stepford Wives as the inspiration for this story, but once again Catherynne Valente was waving another series of red herrings under my nose…
The reveal is quite unexpected – with hindsight it’s easy to see how the author peppered the road with unobtrusive clues, like the names of Sophia’s neighbors for example – but it’s done with such skill that the solution really came out of the blue and if I have to pinpoint any problems with it, they would be in the swiftness with which the resolution comes along: given the measured buildup, I would have expected something less hurried, less… thunderclap-like, if I’m making any sense.
Still, I quite enjoyed this novella and I am in awe of Ms. Valente’s authorial skills, so this will certainly not be the last of her works I will visit.