Difficult Women by Roxane Gay. Grove Press, 2017.
Look at me cranking out blog posts! It’s time for another review of a book I read for the Resist Readathon I’m running as part of an online book club I co-manage. This was our feminist pick. Difficult Women is a collection of short stories by Roxane Gay, a well-known author whose work I had never read before. We decided to go with this book because it’s a different genre than the others in the readathon, and I knew Gay was a feminist writer who is well-respected.
Cutting to the chase here, this book was not what I expected. It was simply way more literary than I thought it was going to be. I feel a bit foolish and embarrassed for not knowing this beforehand. I guess I thought it was going to be lighter than it was, in more ways than one. But looking back, I have no idea why I expected lighter fare from a book of short stories called Difficult Women by a literary author…
Many of the stories were quite dark, dealing with sexual violence, child molestation, miscarriages and deaths of young children, etc. The very first story in the book is the one about child molestation and it kinda hits you across the face if you aren’t expecting it. If you’re looking for a happy read, this isn’t the book for you.
Some of the stories are lighter, however, and all of them feature complex female protagonists, which was the point, after all. I greatly appreciated the variety of women Gay portrays across the different stories and how their motivations for their actions were complex (and often heart-wrenching). As an outsider looking at these women, one might judge them, but when you see their inner lives and stories, the reasons for the seemingly bad decisions they make become clear. That was a theme that ran across almost every story in the book – you can only know what’s on the tip of the iceberg. Gay reveals the lives these women lead below the water line, and you begin to understand why they are who they are.
Several of the stories also had elements of magical realism to them, which I appreciated and enjoyed. My favorite in the book was one such story, in which a woman’s future father-in-law flies a plane into the sun, which makes the sun disappear. The story is about the aftermath of the event; how the man’s son becomes shunned by society and the woman befriends him and ultimately marries him. It was beautifully written. Other magical realist stories include a woman literally made of glass and a woman who is constantly followed by a literal rain cloud.
Gay’s writing style is in no way flowery; she tells stories straight, which works well for the realism she portrays (even the magical realism). Objectively speaking, the book is excellent and deserves all the critical acclaim it gets. I only docked it stars as a matter of my own personal taste. I enjoy short story collections in which the stories are all different enough that it makes reading each one a unique experience. Almost all the stories in Difficult Women had such similar tones and styles that they kindof got old after a while, and I wanted one to jump out and surprise or refresh me (which is why I think I favored the magical realist stories). Especially because most of the stories were quite raw, reading one after another like that had a kind of numbing effect that was probably not desired, considering the serious nature of the issues and events portrayed in the book. But I will say that the final story was incredibly well placed and (no spoliers) was an absolutely perfect ending to the collection.
I would absolutely recommend this book to those who enjoy literary fiction and feminist reads. I give it 3/5 stars.