Sophia’s life is perfect. She adores her husband, her company is much sought-after in the luxurious gated community she and her various neighbors share, she has endless tasks and joys to fill the long days while she waits for her husband to return from his various freelancing jobs. So why does everyone keep asking if she’s happy? Why has her husband forbidden her from breaching their home’s basement? Everything is perfect … right?
It would be easy to call Comfort Me With Apples (2021) a retelling of the “Bluebeard” folktale, and that’s part of what Catherynne M. Valente is doing in this slim novella, but that’s not where the story ends — Valente’s also drawing from other, older, darker sources, and to say more would be to give away the secret of the delightfully deceptive web she’s spinning. Every name, every scene, every detail is carefully chosen as to bear multiple levels of symbolism and reference, turning the book into a text version of an alethiometer. A second reading proved especially fruitful for me, as I was able to notice cues and hints far more clearly, and to better appreciate the richness of Valente’s prose.
The pacing of this story is perfect, as the tension is slowly ratcheted up from the included list of supposedly easy-to-follow rules for the gated community (which only grow more strict and more disconcerting as they go on) to its chapter titles (can you spot your favorite apple variety among options like Ginger Gold, Northern Spy, and Black Twig?) to the horrible fracturing of Sophia’s supposedly idyllic world. It was impossible for me to put Comfort Me With Apples down; from the very first page to the last, Valente completely captivated my attention with her sympathetic heroine, attention to detail, and truly killer ending. Highly recommended.
~ Jana Nyman
I did not catch on to what Valente was doing in this novella until quite late — as, I suspect, was intended by the author. It made what was already a rich tale all the richer. Bluebeard is already a feminist tale, if you squint at it the right way, and the older tale Valente uses so well can also be viewed that way, if one chooses, and the pieces of the puzzle fit so well and so tightly. Mind you, this is far from being a feminist screed; it is a good story first and foremost, and the plot grows organically from the Bluebeard tale to the older tale.
What I loved most about this piece, though, is how beautifully Valente writes. It’s been a while since I last read anything of hers, and I’d forgotten this about her; now I want to read everything I’ve missed in the last few years, because the writing is just so gorgeous. Here’s a passage from early in the book, describing how Sophia exists in this world:
She moves in this echoing house like a flicker of a goldfish in the depthless trenches of the sea. Her long hair, bright and fine as cherry bark, snakes through a mountain of pillows. The dawn comes dancing in, as gold as you please, through vast crosshatched windows curtained in tapestries. Her bedside candle has burned down through the small hours to a thick, craggy nub. Her colorful blanket, still smooth and neat, for Sophia never has had an anxious dream in all the deep violet nights of her life, streams away from her in all directions: a vast, peaceful province peopled by intricate embroidered roses, tatted lace peonies, quilted moonflowers, trailing ribbon-stitched closer, and the little cliffs and hollows of Sophia’s rich body beneath the down.
You know you’re in the hands of a master of the written word when you savor a passage like that. I agree with Jana that this is highly recommended.
~ Terry Weyna
Sophia finds life in Arcadia Gardens beautiful and luxurious and wonderful. Certainly, her husband rarely sleeps next to her nowadays and seems preoccupied even when he is around, but of course his work is terribly important, and he gives her so much. And she doesn’t mind all of the rules and restrictions of the Homeowners Association, who are only looking out for the residents’ best interests. The neighbors all love her and respect her husband. She’s really so very lucky. The world is theirs.
But then, for no real reason — and it’s an impulse Sophia desperately regrets later — this morning she pulls open the top left-hand drawer of her vanity. And doesn’t know what to make of what she finds in that drawer.
When a tale about a young wife keeps emphasizing how everything is SO PERFECT and she is SO HAPPY … you know things are going to go south in a big way. And the creepiness and tension keep building and you’re not sure exactly what is going on until the light blinks on in your head and you’re all, OHH, so that’s what this was building toward this whole time. But then it’s too late.
Catherynne Valente does a fascinating mashup of various stories, folktales and tropes — old tales with some current elements and a feminist spin — in this wickedly sharp novella. Comfort Me with Apples weaves in not just the Bluebeard folktale but much more that only becomes apparent as you get deeper into the story. It’s easy to get lost in Valente’s evocative, lyrical prose, but every detail is significant and even symbolic: places, objects and character names (I particularly liked Mr. Semengelof, Mrs. Palfrey and Cascavel). Even the chapter names come into play: each a different type of apple, many of which I’d never heard of before, like Black Twig and Northern Spy.
I didn’t really love Comfort Me with Apples, perhaps because I don’t care for its troubling worldview, but I’m in awe of Valente’s craft in this disturbing story.
~ Tadiana Jones