"Award-winning author and powerhouse talent Roxane Gay burst onto the scene with An Untamed State and the New York Times bestselling essay collection Bad Feminist (Harper Perennial). Gay returns with Difficult Women, a collection of stories of rare force and beauty, of hardscrabble lives, passionate loves, and quirky and vexed human connection. The women in these stories live lives of privilege and of poverty, are in marriages both loving and haunted by past crimes or emotional blackmail. A pair of sisters, grown now, have been inseparable ever since they were abducted together as children, and must negotiate the elder sister's marriage. A woman married to a twin pretends not to realize when her husband and his brother impersonate each other. A stripper putting herself through college fends off the advances of an overzealous customer. A black engineer moves to Upper Michigan for a job and faces the malign curiosity of her colleagues and the difficulty of leaving her past behind. From a girls' fight club to a wealthy subdivision in Florida where neighbors conform, compete, and spy on each other, Gay delivers a wry, beautiful, haunting vision of modern America reminiscent of Merritt Tierce, Jamie Quatro, and Miranda July"--
Each story is powerful in its own right and demands careful reflection upon finishing it. Some are so upsetting that you cannot move forward with digesting what you just read. However, the collection is so compelling that you find yourself reading the stories one after the other. There is merit in either approach to the book. Both approaches will ultimately lead you to the same conclusions about women’s place in society.
In each short story Ms. Gay provides an unflinching look at just a few of the issues women deal with on a daily basis. Even more impressively, she creates characters that are more than just caricatures. You know these women. They are your girlfriends, your sisters, mothers, daughters; they are you. This fact, along with her sensitive, almost poetic, approach to very difficult topics, makes this collection a must-read for feminists.
Ms. Gay reminds all readers that if someone insists on calling us difficult, we are so because of the challenges we face in a male-dominated society. Our unique roles as mothers and caregivers brings its own challenges that men will never understand. Ms. Gay does understand and it shows in every word in each of her short stories. Coming off of the craptastic 2016 and the disturbing revelations the presidential election revealed about society, Difficult Women is an essential read for 2017.
Like any collection of short stories, the quality varied from brilliant to acceptable, but despite the way Gay constantly examined similar situations with different variables, the short stories never felt repetitive. They were strongest at their most raw - the stories that opened and closed the book were visceral and I think I'll be living with them for some time.
"For difficult women, who should be celebrated for their very nature."
The theme of difficult women was well represented and I loved all these women, specifically for their flaws. Most of them are broken somehow and it is this part of the theme that I feel is way too underrated in modern writing. Many of these women lead difficult lives and many of the circumstances in the stories were likewise difficult. This is not a book about prima donnas or women that give men a hard time for kicks. It's not a book about women who generally have it easy but dare to complain about this or that discomfort. They are difficult. Life is difficult.
I don't want to sound cliche about it, but they are the real women of the world, the women with all their baggage from dealing with the hardships of life, the realities of life that isn't a sitcom or a romcom. Life can be tragic and it's this aspect of it that we sometimes fail to showcase in literature because we'd rather everything be larger than life with problems that seem great but that everyone will essentially survive in the end. It is when people write women like this that literature takes a turn for the far more interesting for me and I have a feeling I'm not the only one who feels that way. It's a book for anyone who ever enjoyed Kindred or Antigone or Madame Bovary, which all had difficult women.
The writing in each is amazing and there was one that I couldn't finish because it was a triggering about a personal event. You'll see which later. I don't do well with some stories about child deaths. I can get through some, but others bring me back to a place that it isn't worth going for me. Similarly, if you are triggered by sexual assault or rape or abusive relationships, don't read this book.
While I'll easily recommend the book as a whole to anyone else, here are some notes on the individual stories:
I Will Follow You - beautifully heartbreaking in a way that makes me feel like women can get through anything, particularly when we have another woman to stick with.
Water, All Its Weight - strange and sad, the imagery is great and there is an undercurrent that keeps the fantasy side from running away with the idea of how anything could weigh you down.
The Mark of Cain - unusual but it was great to see a switch on the typical way this kind of story is written.
Difficult Women - the format is a little unusual, but this is something I do when I see women that others call difficult
FLORIDA - again with a different unusual format but along the same lines as the last, making stories for people we see everyday
Le Negra Blanca - this one just infuriates me. it's all of the problems of women, particularly women of color, and the way society looks at us wrapped into one story
Baby Arm - this is easily my favorite! It's weird and gory and I could never imagine being at this best friend level but it's intriguing nonetheless.
North Country - this is a welcome reprieve after some of the others but complete with it's own issues
How - the format is a little strange because it's laid out in a how-did-this-happen kind of way that helped that story along despite that it was just sad in that way that brings you down but doesn't break your heart.
Requiem for a Glass Heart - beautiful imagery for some of life's problems.
In the Event of My Father's Death - I just appreciate that this one exists in all it's messiness, not because I particularly like any character but that I know they are out there and should be written about too.
Break All the Way Down - this is the one I couldn't finish. It seemed written as well as the others but was tearing me down.
Bad Priest - more fun than I anticipated though horribly irreverent and sacreligious in a way would be delightful if I wasn't a Christian. Still kinda fun to read though.
Open Marriage - adorable
A Pat - I wasn't entirely sure what to make of the story part but it has a sentiment that I can totally get with.
Best Features - another story that's sad but not unusual in the world of women
Bone Density - sometimes marriages work in the strangest of ways. I've heard of some women making it work just like this.
I Am a Knife - this one totally grossed me out over and over again.
The Sacrifice of Darkness - I really like this one, it was odd but uplifting overall
Noble Things - this one had to be a crazy exercise in imagining just how the country may eventually fall apart and just what the fallout would look like. Their struggles weren't all that unusual, just the setting
Strange Gods - the worst of the heartbreak was here. I think it's because I had already read Bad Feminist and I had a feeling where some of this was going.
Many of the scenarios in the stories weren't beyond my ability to imagine. Some are the very worst of the female experience, the things that makes us fear walking the streets alone at night but sometimes more afraid of trusting some men enough to take them with us. Others were just sad because, like men, we can get stuck in lives we never intended to live. There were also those few that were either uplifting or adorable or fun. I'd be willing to watch a movie that expands on the idea of Baby Arm, Noble Things, Bad Priest or The Sacrifice of Darkness.
Overall, Gay is right. Difficult women do need to be celebrated more. Fortunately, I think we've started to do that more in our media. We've gotten some television shows in recent years that have started to pay more attention to us and I've been really enjoying it. I hope it continues and we find more difficult women to celebrate.
My only advice would be NOT to read it all in one go as a novel, because some of the themes which are visited and re-visited, while strong and important, lost a little traction when the stories are read one after the other. I reflected that if these stories had been presented to me individually in a different format - say, one per month in a magazine - I would have enjoyed them more thoroughly. So treat it as an anthology, and go back and read the stories singly in between other reading. If only I had the discipline to do that myself, in stead of moving greedily form each to the next!
I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher via netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
In a nutshell: Collection of short stories about many different interesting women.
Line that sticks with me: “In the complex calculus between men and women, Milly understands that fat is always ugly and that ugly and skinny makes a woman eminently more desirable than fat and any combination such as beautiful, charming, intelligent, or kind.” (p 163)
Why I chose it: I really enjoyed Roxane Gay’s nonfiction work and wanted to try her fiction.
Review: I ran very hot and cold with this collection. I suppose that might be the case with most short story collections. Some of the stories were intriguing and kept me reading regardless of the fact that I was walking in the rain at night (seriously - the middle 20 pages are all warped now). And some I just sort of skimmed to get he idea of because I just couldn’t get into them.
There are a LOT of stories. Some are just a couple of pages long; others are much more involved. I would imagine that you could find a few that you enjoy. But it’s just not my favorite, overall.
Gay is one of my favorite writers, and I am glad to have finally tackled some of her fiction.
The common theme of all of the stories is, obviously, the women in them. A number of stories take us to northern Michigan and the cold. There is deer hunting. Infidelity. But mostly women who are often in shitty situations and how they handle those situations.
I always have a number of books going at any one time, in all formats. I have to read print before bed, because I don't have a dedicated e-reader, and the backlight of tablets and my laptop make it difficult to fall asleep. This book was bedtime reading for a few nights. Then I read "La Negra Blanca," and had to relegate this to daytime reading, because my dreams are screwed up enough without any help from what I'm reading.
I recommend this book, even though it's not easy or fluffy or light. Roxane Gay's writing is superb.