Everything is Not Fine

Books

This is a book like a mosaic, every small detail a shiny marvel that builds the glorious whole.

Arcadia Gardens: A Heavenly Nightmare

If you’re not familiar with the phrase, “comfort me with apples” is a line from the Song of Solomon, and specifically from the King James translation. The fuller line goes “Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love.” I’d be sick of love, too, if I had to live in the nightmare that is Catherynne Valente’s Arcadia Gardens, a heavenly place only so long as you don’t ask questions.

Comfort Me with Apples (Tor dot com, November 2021) features an elaborately fabricated Eden, with as many HOA rules as it has beasts of the field and birds of the air. It’s the first, only, and perpetual gated community, and like our modern ones, it’s meant to keep people out. And in the largest house on the most exclusive street, we meet Sophia, who doesn’t care that They Put Up A Parking Lot, because she’s in love. With her husband, no less! And it doesn’t matter to her that he’s forbidden her from ever going in the basement of their too-large house, or that he’s gone most of the time, or that when he is home, he patronizes and belittles her.

I should rewind a bit, though. “I am sick of love,” is an archaic translation, and therefore may be misleading. The Hebrew can mean “I am sick from love,” (most modern translations capture this), and I’ve no doubt that Valente is aware of the various ways the prepositions get used (or misused). Sophia may get sick of love, but she’s also quite sick from it, from the disquietingly deep love she feels for a man she barely knows, and from the paltry love he shows her in return. She’s sick as in ill and sick as in tired of it. It’s a small detail, but this is a book like a mosaic, every small detail a shiny marvel that builds the glorious whole.

The Interplay of Mythology and Knowledge

Valente is working with the Jewish myths that arose around the Genesis 1-3 creation and the Bluebeard fairy tale. If you’re not familiar, Genesis involves the first male and female human being told not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge and then Eve, the woman, eating from specifically that tree; Bluebeard is about a woman who marries a man who tells her never to go into his basement and then her going into that basement to find it’s full of his dead previous wives. Centrally, both stories are about knowledge: who has it, who doesn’t, and what the consequences are for learning.

You know you’re vulnerable, wearing flimsy garments that only serve to give you away. The knowledge stains you indelibly, and it doesn’t give you very much more power than you had before. So why, asks Valente (and most of the rest of humanity), do we want to know so bad?

Because of the first wife.

Bluebeard may have killed all his other wives for peeking, but why did he kill his first wife? What could she have possibly seen that he would have had to kill her for? Nothing — and that’s the point. Bluebeard was always going to have killed his wives, including the protagonist. Her lack of knowledge would never have kept her safe. And it’s the same with Sophia. Even if she were perfect, Adam would still have killed her. In fact, she is perfect. Adam says so. God himself says so. Every new wife is perfect. So maybe perfection includes curiosity and an instinct toward self-preservation, and maybe it’s not about the perfection of the wife but the failure of the husband. Or the husband’s father.

The Banality of Evil

It all points back to the father and son: God and Adam eternally in cahoots, the patriarchy a united front. God gives Adam everything he wants, and everything Adam wants is a McMansion with a basement kill room. It’s like he listened to too many true crime podcasts while cruising Zillow. Adam isn’t just evil, he’s lame. He’s the most banal kind of evil even when elevated over all else, the father of all failsons. Except not really, because he’s forbidden from having children.

This thwarted virility — or straight-up impotence — is important here because so many of our ancient myths are about inheritance. The Greek gods feared their children with good reason: usurpation and castration was not just common but foundational. And in Genesis, God banishes the human pair because they become “like gods,” possibly a little too powerful for comfort. Family can be a male anxiety — and a female advantage.

Conclusion

In “Comfort Me with Apples,” Catherynne Valente weaves a tale set in the meticulously constructed community of Arcadia Gardens. Through the characters of Sophia and her controlling husband, the book delves into the themes of love, knowledge, and the patriarchy. Drawing from Jewish myths and the Bluebeard fairy tale, Valente explores the consequences of seeking knowledge and the inherent flaws in the male-dominated power structures. With intricate details and thought-provoking storytelling, “Comfort Me with Apples” offers a nuanced examination of human desires, relationships, and the complexities of the human condition.