I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
on January 3rd 2017
Genres: Fiction, Short Stories (single author), Literary
Format: Electronic ARC
Buy on Amazon
Twenty-one short stories about flawed, complex individuals who might typically be reduced to dismissive categories. I can’t say I enjoyed reading Difficult Women, but I’m glad I read it. One of the many things that Gay excelled at was creating fully-formed characters and relationships in just a few pages. I felt like I intimately knew each character, even though some of the stories were very short. We’re introduced to a variety of women: jaded women, women who don’t think they deserve love, women who have been hurt by those they trusted or strangers, women who want to feel pain, women who are trying to find their place, women who know exactly what they want out of life, fierce women who instinctively protect their loved ones.
It isn’t light reading. These characters have been pushed to the limit and each story felt like an additional weight on my shoulders. In multiple stories a character begs another not to break their heart, only to be later disappointed. Common threads weave throughout many of the stories: child loss, adultery, abuse, rough sex, twins, the bond between women. My only complaint is that if you read it straight through, it feels like you’re repeatedly reading about the same situations. I got the most out of it when I only read a single story at a time, so that I could focus more on their differences than their similarities.
One of the best parts of this collection were the moments of recognition and vindication–the feeling that someone else out there understands. There’s a part in Difficult Women (Crazy Women) where a woman explains the considerations she makes when walking home late at night and her boyfriend tells her she is crazy. I had this exact same conversation in college and I remember how it made me question my own sanity. It goes to show the importance of having a diversity of voices.
I didn’t feel like I fully understood every story, but I found this great quote from Gay about the creation of Water, All Its Weight: “When I wrote this story I was living in an apartment with a rotting ceiling, and I thought: “What if someone created rot just by existing?” It’s interesting that a lot of people read way more into this story. When I write, there is rarely some grand statement I am trying to make. This story was simply a story about a girl who is followed, haunted by water and its weight. Literally.” (Chicago Review of Books). It made me feel more at ease when thinking about the stories that ventured into magical realism.
I usually only feature my favorite short stories in these collections, but I felt the need to think through all these stories. My favorites are bolded. Many were shorter, character pieces, but I tend to like longer stories with more plot.
I Will Follow You – A haunting story about the unbreakable bond between sisters. Savvie and Carolina endured a terrible trauma together when they were children. Carolina is married now, but the sisters will always remain inseparable. A perfect opening!
Water, All Its Weight – Everywhere Bianca goes, the water follows–and then comes the rot and mold. Unable to handle the side effects of Bianca’s company, everyone in her life abandons her. My favorite moment is the short time when Bianca’s affliction is celebrated.
The Mark of Cain (link goes to story)- When this husband is with his mistress, he has his twin brother take his place at home. He thinks his wife doesn’t know, but she does–and she prefers the brother. The cycle of violence and the burdens our family can place on us.
Difficult Women – Different categories of misunderstood women: Loose Women, Frigid Women, Crazy Woman, Mothers, Dead Girls. My favorite was Crazy Women.
Florida – A peek into the windows of a Naples, Florida community. There are racial and class divides amongst the inhabitants and employees. New resident Marcy feels out of place next to her perfect neighbors and immediately sees that they “only [exist] in relation to those around them.”
La Negra Blanca – A stripper becomes the fixation of a wealthy client who feels entitled to her body. This man fetishizes black women, but was always taught to keep his distance so as not to “tarnish” the family name.
Baby Arm – A woman who knows exactly what she wants out of a relationship meets a man who gets her idiosyncracies. She conflates love and pain. She regularly attends all-girl fight club with her best friend Tate and other “girls who keep their ugly beneath the skin where it belongs, even though sometimes, it’s hard to keep it all in.” She loves Tate fiercely and Tate always knows exactly what she needs.
North Country – Kate is a black woman, which makes her a “double novelty” at her new university job. She’s welcomed with a barrage of insensitive questions and unwanted advances. She’s not ready for love after the end of a bad relationship and the loss of a child, but she begins to see a possible future with a charming logger named Magnus.
How – After years of being taken advantage of, Hanna’s family finally pushes her to her breaking point. She makes a plan to run off with her twin sister and her true love Laura. I loved the structure this story and the mini-chapters with names like How These Things Come to Pass & How Hanna Ikonen Knows It Is Time to Get the Girl and Get Out of Town.
Requiem for a Glass Heart – A couple that loves each other, but they each need more than the other can give. The stone thrower, a man of flesh and blood, steals away moments where he “does not have to see too much or love too carefully.” Likewise, the glass woman is sometimes frustrated with her husband “who sees too much and loves too carefully.” Their needs overlap, but they’re unable to provide those things for each other.
In the Event of My Father’s Death – A father takes his daughter to his mistress’s house on weekends. She eventually follows in father’s footsteps.
Break All the Way Down – A woman “uses one hurt to cover another” by finding an abusive boyfriend after the death of her child. Her husband stands on the sidelines until he’s unable to watch her self-destruct any longer.
Bad Priest – A priest who “lied so extravagantly that even though he was not a believer, he feared for his mortal soul.” He begins an affair with Rebekah, a woman who “thrived on hopeless relationships.” My favorite part was the explanation of why Mickey became a priest.
Open Marriage – A woman toys with her husband after he suggests an open marriage. She knows he’ll never be able to follow through.
A Pat – A woman extends kindness to a stranger, but her motivations may be more selfish than it initially appears.
Best Features – Milly is overweight and gets involved in unhealthy relationships because she thinks she has no choice. “She knows how difficult it is to change the world. She used to try to change the world, but she learned better.”
Bone Density – A complicated relationship. The couple in this story both have partners outside the marriage, but they still have a strange pull towards one another.
I Am Knife – A powerful woman who uses her capability for violence to protect her loved ones. After the tragic death of her own child, she enviously watches as her twin sister’s pregnant belly grows. As painful as it is, she will always be at her sister’s side. “I wish I could carve the anger out of my body the way I cut everything else.”
Strange Gods – The first story and last story complement each other. A woman details her past trauma and explains to her devoted partner why she sometimes pushes him away.
My favorite two stories were the ones that felt most of out place:
The Sacrifice of Darkness – Every time miner Hiram Hightower goes underground, he comes back up less of a man. Fed up with a life filled with darkness, he causes the sun to disappear by flying an air machine into it. His family is left to deal with the consequences of his actions. A sweet love story with a hopeful end.
Parents hated Joshua because their parents hated Joshua’s father and none of those kids knew how to be any better than the people who brought them into the world.
Noble Things – Takes place after the second secession of South and the New Civil War. Anna married Patrick, son of a celebrated general who led the Southern states into battle. She wants to move to the North where they’ve already sent their young son. Patrick hates what the South has become, but his obligation to his family makes it difficult for him to leave. Sacrifice and the ties that bind us. There are so many chilling lines in this one.
Anna and Parker had the conversations they could only have with each other. They tried to remember the before, when they were children and there was only one place to call home, one country, the flag billowing on windy days in front of homes up and down every street—bands of red and white, fifty stars, one nation, indivisible until it wasn’t, how quickly it all came apart.
Difficult Women is a fascinating collection of short stories that I would love to read again eventually. There’s so much to unpack that it’s impossible to get it all in one go. This was my first Roxane Gay experience, but it certainly won’t be my last!