Short Answer: Roxane Gay’s DIFFICULT WOMEN is a must-read. (You can read one of the stories here.) And it’s one you should invest in because you’ll want to read many of the 21 short stories more than once.
Long, General Answer: I loved this collection. Many of these stories have been available in some form since 2009, others for a few years, and I am mortified that I hadn’t come across them before. Each story is moving, discomfiting, thought-provoking, and painfully comforting. I wept after several stories. I recognized myself in several stories. I was angered and horrified and soothed during several stories. DIFFICULT WOMEN includes traditional prose, magical realism, flashback, internal subtitles, and more. An alert reader will notice repeated allusions to characters (perhaps in various evolutions) across the stories. And the themes of public and private mourning, loss, punishment, internal and external pain, self-acceptance, and finding home play peekaboo with the reader, making each story more layered as the collection is devoured.
Yes, I’m gushing.
Short, Specific Answer:
I deeply appreciated being challenged by the characters. The female characters aren’t only “difficult women” because of how they interact with their fellow characters, although they do make life complicated and sticky and difficult within their stories. The dozens of difficult women Gay has created are difficult because they don’t allow the reader to feel comfortably satisfied with their choices. THEIR choices.
Long, Specific Answer:
The characters in DIFFICULT WOMEN don’t do what the reader wants them to do. They don’t concern themselves with being inspiring or heroic. They make choices to survive, heal, move on that don’t fit into what we’ve been taught overcoming “bad stuff” looks like. They are much more real. Most of Gay’s characters have suffered deep trauma, painful loss, disappointment, betrayal, and each approaches getting through her private mourner, healing on her own terms. Each woman’s choice forces those observing (whether fellow characters or the reader) to confront the judgments connected to choices that aren’t easily swallowed or meme’d or understood.
Characters settle into disappointing lives that are good enough, are loyal to men who are adequate, depend on lovers and spouses who are sometimes exceptional, allow themselves to be beaten and bitten and broken, and refuse to stand up for themselves in ways that inspire movements. They survive.
For me, the most difficult stories were the ones that included characters who invited violence and abuse. As someone who works with those affected by domestic violence, it was tough to hold off on inserting my own experiences. The difference in these cases was the characters’ choices to use pain and physical pummeling, both sexual and fight-style violence, to work through their feelings of anger, guilt, and emotional pain in their journey towards healing. In one story, “Baby Arm,” it even brought the main character to an all female fight club where ribs are broken and spines are bruised and pain is reveled in. However, in no story does the physical punishment as healing become more clear than in “Break All the Way Down.”
A lot of people decided I went crazy after the accident. They kept waiting for me to strip naked in a shopping mall or eat a cat or something. When I took up with an asshole, they breathed a sigh of relief. “Your situation is still fixable,” my mother said when I was still taking her calls.
I am not crazy.
“Break All the Way Down” addresses mourning and sorrow and guilt after a very public tragedy. How can a woman mourn publicly in “acceptable” ways when a raw, shouted “Are you fucking kidding me?” is the only response that makes sense? It’s a beautiful, horrible, hopeful, fucked up story about survival. Don’t pass it by.
Some Things That Surprised Me, short answer:
Roxane Gay employs elements of Magical Realism in several stories. “Water, All Its Weight,” “Requiem for a Glass Heart,” and “I Am a Knife” all create a context in which unbelievable realities are, indeed, the reality. One woman’s baggage is the water (and the mold it creates) that follows her, and it repels everyone from her parents to lovers. Another woman, made of glass, is married to a stone thrower and they have a glass child. Their differences create tension borne of careful care and love. Heartbreaking. Another woman saves her sister’s life and later saves her sister’s child, both times by using her fingernail to perform surgery. She is a knife.
Some Things That Surprised Me, last answer:
The variety of the characters and storylines is magnificently balanced with the recurring themes of loss, sisterhood (in several forms), survival by any means necessary, and escape. The women portrayed survive by escaping their trauma, scandal, pain in socially unacceptable ways that make it difficult for their families and communities to support them wholeheartedly.
In the first story in this collection, “I Will Follow You,” the main character sets up the reader to understand the choices throughout the book when she finally understands why her sister stayed with a man who seems undeserving.
“North Country,” one of my favorite stories in DIFFICULT WOMEN, returns to mourning via isolation. The main character isolates herself in every way possible: she takes a job where she is the only woman and the only Black person; she lives in an apartment with no windows; her groceries even belie isolation in their condition and scarcity. Her loneliness on the inside demands to be balanced by her loneliness on the outside. And oh my the journey to accepting her sadness is beautiful.
Another of my favorite stories is “La Negra Blanca.” This story about Sarah, a high achieving college student who earns money in a strip club, addresses issues swirling around assumptions and identity and prejudice and expectations with a matter-of-fact, dry voice that leaves the reader unprepared for the story’s climax. The antagonist is caught in his own version of identity politics, which is juxtaposed with the foil of another male character. The main character’s decision not to report a rape is HER decision, no one else’s. And she’s tired, and she just wants quiet. It was when I re-read this story that I started connecting the “difficult woman” web Gay has created. The reader wants punishment of some kind, any kind, for Sarah’s rapist, but instead he is rewarded with a “brave new world.” It’s a layered, angry story.
“Strange Gods” is painful and crazy-making, like much of the collection. Based on a personal experience of the author, it feels familiar and foreign all at once. It’s told in a journal-writing style first person, and I can’t really tell you more about it other than you must read it, and perhaps you should not read it. I recognized myself, and you may too. It’s beautiful and infuriating and frightening and sad. And, like many of the women in DIFFICULT WOMEN, it emphasizes that surviving something doesn’t necessarily mean you’re strong in the traditional sense — just that you survived.
DIFFICULT WOMEN is a collection you’re going to want to keep around for re-reads; don’t lend it to friends. Buy them their own copy.
Other, more professional, reviews of Roxane Gay’s DIFFICULT WOMEN
The Washington Post
The Guardian review
The Brock Press
Kirkus Reviews (why didn’t it get a starred review?)
Star Tribune review (IMO, it missed the mark)