On the one hand, I very rarely read short story collections because I also have a strong desire to finish a book once I start, and if I read too many short stories in a row, I get irritated about not getting to spend more time with characters. Collections of short stories related to series don’t count since those are opportunities to experience short side adventures, thus having more time with beloved characters. On the other hand, Atwood’s Gertrude Speaks is one of my favorite pieces of hers, so the premise of this book appealed to me very strongly when I saw emmalita’s review (apparently, at this point, I am just reading emmalita’s reviews and then reading the novels she likes; I also have Too Like the Lightning waiting on my Kindle app). While Catherynne Valente doesn’t try to disguise which comic properties she is referring to, she uses different names, and I am grateful that emmalita included a list of the “real” names of the women. I didn’t read Marvel or DC growing up so I am not very familiar with the origin stories or the girlfriends of all these characters (Marvel and DC are equally guilty and each have three women represented, even mixing the universes). I probably would have recognized Gwen Stacey and Spiderman on my own. Jean Grey and Harley Quinn were obvious because of the fame of their properties. I might have figured out Mera because of the setting – who other than Aquaman is involved with an underwater kingdom after all. Karen Page from Daredevil would have been a struggle, especially since I didn’t realize he had a love interest other than Elektra (I couldn’t get into the Netflix series). Alexandra deWitt would have been a definite miss – the description of the emblems would have possibly clued me into Green Lantern but that’s literally all I know about the character.
She chooses an eclectic mix of women, all of whom ended up sidelined to the main character, tragic victims that gave his story more pathos, obstacles he had to overcome or distractions from the heroes’ real purpose. Mera especially stands out as a supernatural being more powerful than her husband yet somehow portrayed as his burden, and of course, Jean Grey serves as another example of a powerful woman feared by men and relegated to the role of support character in their stories. Emotions range from anger to bitterness to denial. Paige Embry (Gwen), for example, did not intend to be relegated to sidekick status and tried to be an active participant while Karen Page played the role of supportive girlfriend waiting at home. It didn’t pay off for either of them.
I also liked the glimpses into life as the girlfriend of a superhero, the need to carry the house burdens while the hero saves the world and gives up his career as a result. While I didn’t like Justice League two summers ago, apparently Margot Robbie made more of an impression than I realized because I couldn’t help reading Pretty Polly’s monologue in her voice. It’s worth a read, and not being familiar with some of the less prominent characters should not be a deterrent. I read through the Wikipedia summaries of the characters I had never heard of before, which was sufficient to understand the context, and even without that, Valente created strong enough perspectives and voices for these women that I felt drawn into their stories and understood their emotions.