Difficult Women is a collection of short stories by Roxane Gay that explores the lives of different women living in the United States. I chose this book because of my love for short stories and also because I thought it would be interesting to review a collection of multiple stories instead of just one.
As the title suggests, these women are not what one may think of as average or normal. In all of the short stories, there are women who find themselves in difficult situations that allow the reader to see why these people act the way they do. These stories are very hard-hitting and touch on sensitive, emotional topics that some readers may not be comfortable with. The story “I Will Follow You” describes two sisters who were abducted, as children, by a man who raped them continuously over a long period of time. This plot point is not immediately obvious but is brought up later as we see how the adult sisters continue to cope with their past trauma. Another story, “La Negra Blanca”, shows the conflict between a young stripper and an older, rich, white male who is far too pushy.
These more realistic short stories in Gay’s collection cover main themes of violence, sexual trauma, and loss. Gay writes about these events in a way that doesn’t use people’s trauma for entertainment but provides explanation and insight. She writes very bluntly at times, which I think helps to deliver these tough topics in a way that feels genuine. In most of the stories there are descriptions of sexual encounters between people, and while I think it makes the lives of women more realistic and bold, I sometimes feel that this structure is used too much. There is also a great balance in these stories between the past and the present, and Gay weaves these two together well to leave the reader trying to figure out what will happen. In these more lifelike stories, I find that this form, while well-balanced, is sometimes repetitive.
That being said, Gay breaks up these more realistic stories with a style of magical realism. After the incredibly heavy opening story, “I Will Follow You,” is “Water, All Its Weight,” which describes the sad life of a woman who has an unusual problem. No matter where she goes, she is followed by water that leaks through the ceiling above her and creates mold. Others in the story find it hard to be in her presence because there is a constant dampness that seems to seep into their bones and drives them away. Another, “Requiem for a Glass Heart,” follows the life of a couple, the glass woman and the stone thrower, who live together in a glass house with their glass son. My personal favorite was the longest of these mystical tales, “The Sacrifice of Darkness.” The narrator is a woman who is married to the son of a coal miner who was filled with so much darkness from his profession that he flew up and consumed the sun. The narrator falls in love with the son, who is ostracized for being related to the man who took the sun away. There is hope at the end when their child is born and light begins to return to the sky.
I enjoy the impossibility of magical realism in Difficult Women. Gay writes very convincingly in this style and uses it as another way to tackle heavy topics. The writing, particularly in “The Sacrifice of Darkness” is fairytale-esque and pleasant to read. I felt that for these more mystical kinds of stories, there was never a clear ending. I understand that short stories do not need to be clear cut and tied up by the end, but there was too much openness at the end for my liking.
Overall, Difficult Women was a great read. While I sometimes had to take a break after more intense stories, I was always excited to pick it up and keep going. The stories were not meant to simply justify why difficult women act the way they do, it is an acceptance of all kinds of women and their situations in this modern world. This book would be good for someone who wants to read about well developed female characters and unusual scenarios. I would not recommend this book to someone who may be sensitive to topics of sexual assault and rape, or someone who cannot read graphic descriptions of sexual encounters. I would recommend reading this book with feminist ideology in mind because some of the stories are more about commentary on how things are rather than how they should be.
258 pages. Published by Grove Press. Hardcover $25.00