Comfort Me With Apples

I’ve been sitting on this review for an extremely long time.

I had a really prickly-spine-I’ll-love-this feeling about Catherynne M. Valente’s Comfort Me With Apples, which will be released October 26. (If you order it at that link, to her local, truly wonderful, book shop, Print: A Bookstore in Portland, Maine, you can get it signed and personalized!)

Given my prickly-spine-I’ll-love-this feeling, I requested a review copy almost as soon as the book was announced. They kindly sent it (along with The Past Is Red, which I also reviewed), and I read it immediately.

I think it might be the best novella I’ve ever read, certainly it’s one of my top reads of 2021, of all the books I’ve read this past year, for any age and in any genre—

And I don’t know how to review it.

First of all, the practical question: who is the audience and where would you shelve it? (This is how I think of genre—genre is a tricky beast and to my mind it all comes down to “where to put it on a shelf in a book shop or library,” otherwise the question is all but meaningless.) Well, I wouldn’t give it to anyone too young, definitely, but within books for adults, it’s best shelved…


Well, the plot—

Wait, no, I can’t tell you anything, not one iota, about the plot or it ruins the entire book. The same goes for the characters. The setting. Even the atmosphere is almost indefinable.

The best way to read this book is the way I made my husband read it: I shoved it into his hands and said, “Open it to the first page, start reading with the first word, and carry on in perfect sequence without flipping ahead at all and just read it all to the last word of the last page.”

This is a hard way to sell a book so many people should read, and should read for no better nor worse reason than “it’s just so good you should read it.”

This is both frustrating and wonderful for me as a reviewer. Normally I can use lots of things to convey the feel of a book and try to send off a signal to the kind of person who would like it that they should read it. I can delve into character and plot. For this book I can only explain that this book provides an absolutely unique experience to you as a reader; no other book will do what this book does, and that’s all I can say. That’s why it’s getting reviewed here on The Children’s Bookroom even though it’s decidedly not geared towards kids. Parents of kids, teachers of kids, librarians for kids need to read it– and it’s exactly we who love children’s books who need to read it. Because we’re the ones with the sense memory for it.

It starts with a pleasant scene, and because it’s pleasant, we of course feel uneasiness. This opening sets the tone for the whole book. Everyone knows that a book that begins like this one—with a sense of pleasure—is not going to continue in perfect pleasantness, because books don’t do that. (“But why? I mean, everything is fine, it doesn’t have to not be fine, books can be fine, right? Except, no, though, what’s going to happen in the book, it can’t be fine or nothing will happen and then what’s a book without a thing that happens?”) So what will break the pleasant feeling? Where will the fracture to the peace come in? You’re tense, anticipating disruption. Why? Because that’s what books do, they disrupt… right?

And, yes, things are disrupted, indeed, yes, in a way. There is, absolutely, a growing sense of danger or threat or—I’m not entirely sure how to define it. One could, potentially, shelve this book in a horror section, given the level of darkness, simply because people who enjoy a dark read would enjoy this book. The elements are all there.

But I love the book and I don’t read horror. I would never read horror. Why would I browse in the horror section? Looking at the excellent blurbs I also see words like “thriller” (I don’t read thrillers), and “mystery” (I like mysteries, but don’t often browse for them), and I see “fairy tale” which is true and certainly would catch my interest, but it’s not what you think at first and anyway there’s not often a fairy tale section in a book shop though I’d love it if there were–

But the point is: horror, mystery, thriller, fairy tale—they’re all true. So where do you put it? And if you put it in any of those places, people like me would miss it. That breaks my heart.

And I’m not sure it inherently belongs in any one of those places, as you’d probably understand after reading the book, but the point of shelving books by genre is to get people to begin reading, so where should it go?

Such a dilemma.

So I will say these things:

Remember that the author knows a wide swathe of media. She knows art and literature, history and pop culture, film and television. I think she draws on pretty much everything, going into this.

If you love a noir element, the slow unfolding of truth, and a final punch in the final paragraph—this is for you. There’s a feel to it like watching Breathless (À bout de souffle).

If you love subtle atmospheric writing, lyrical text without explicit poetry, but the with the spareness of something between Emily Dickinson’s vision and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, this is for you. (If it weren’t such a low-traffic area, maybe shelve it in poetry, even though it’s not a poem?)

If you love apples, this is for you. It’s got a lot of good food in it, too (it’s not a cookbook).

If you love falling in love with a character so that your emotions are really bound up in her even though you’re not sure you know her fully, not quite, this is for you. (But don’t shelve it in relationships or self-help.)

It’s fiction, ultimately, but more than fiction, because it goes right all around fiction and finds truth on the other side of it.

And the place, the really good place, to shelve it is in a section I’ve never seen in a book shop or a library:

“This is where you should go if you’re a grown-up who was a kid who loved getting caught up reading a book you hadn’t known could be written, didn’t think of reading, couldn’t imagine not reading, and then once you were reading it you couldn’t put it down even when called to supper or sent to bed—and now you’re grown up and want that experience all over again.”

That’s about it, really.

So when the book comes out (October 26, pre-order here), grab this, and an apple you picked yourself in an orchard, take the first, juicy bite, and lose yourself in this book so entirely you forget you’re holding an apple.

2 thoughts on “Comfort Me With Apples

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