Book Review: Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Listen. It’s almost impossible for any collection of twenty-one short stories to please everyone all of the time, but with Difficult Women Roxane Gay comes closer than most to nailing it. The stories in this volume are, from start to finish, thoughtful, clever, funny, tragic and hopeful in turn. These stories are a rage-filled paean to the strength and resilience and weakness and fragility and everything in between of women. This is an ugly, heart-wrenching, beautiful book, and if Roxane Gay wrote three hundred forty-four more stories like this I would treat them like a devotional and reread them every year for the rest of my life.

Probably what I love best about Difficult Women is that Roxane Gay is so unconcerned with dualities. She avoids trite, reductive storytelling in favor of exploring the complexities of every day life. Gay’s difficult women deal with trauma and loss, they fall in love, and they fuck. They are kind and brave and capricious and cruel and yielding and stubborn and cold-hearted and hot-tempered and more, and every woman Gay writes about here contains multitudes. It’s impressive to find so much intricacy of character in short fiction, and Gay turns out one fascinating story after another.

That said, there’s a significant amount of thematic overlap and repetition between entries in the collection. Sexual violence, dead children, and abusive lovers figure largely in these tales, and this can at times create a sense of grimness that won’t be appealing to all readers. Certainly there are some lighter stories included, but I found those to have a slighter quality than those stories that dealt with weightier material. Altogether, though, the stories of Difficult Women are well-chosen and smartly arranged so that the reader is never overwhelmed by darkness, and those couple of slighter stories, while not among my favorites, perform an important function in the collection as a whole by periodically lightening the mood and offering the reader a perfect opportunity to grab a drink or take a break.

In style and genre, Gay is clearly a writer of wide-ranging interests, with several stories veering into the realm of magical realism and one (“The Sacrifice of Darkness”) that is unambiguously speculative in nature. Gay writes stories in numerous settings about characters of different ages, races and classes, floating in and out of her characters’ lives with what might seem like ease for the reader but I expect is the result of years of life experience and meticulous study of people combined with finely honed craft. Stylistically, these stories all tend towards a forthrightness that challenges the reader to really see and empathize with the characters with all their flaws and defies moralistic judgments. This is a collection that is keenly intellectual, but never self-consciously so. Even Gay’s symbolism is generally natural and easy to grasp, and she doesn’t bother with any too-precious conceits, complex metaphors or arcane allusions that might make the text inaccessible.

In the end, Difficult Women is just what it says it is and what it appears to be. It’s a work of elegant simplicity and brutal honesty and deeply humane reflections on the human condition. I look forward to shamelessly pushing it on literally everyone I know.

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