Roxane Gay’s “Difficult Women,” a 2017 anthology of short stories, has a self-explanatory title. The female characters in these short stories behave in ways that are opposed to society’s standards. The women portrayed include reluctant mothers, sexual assault victims, resistant wives, sex workers and even the members of an all-female fight club. These women are not convenient. They do not always act in a way that the people around them think would be ‘easy’ or preferable.
The stories in “Difficult Women” vary in genre, although most are realistic fiction. “The Sacrifice of Darkness” is set in a world which lost the sun after a light-deprived coal miner swallowed it whole. “Requiem for a Glass Heart” features a protagonist who is literally made of glass. Ultimately, Gay’s stories are connected by the “difficult” nature of the female protagonists portrayed.
Gay’s characters seem extraordinarily real. “Break All the Way Down” is an almost painfully honest portrayal of a couple’s anguish after the sudden death of their only son. Natasha, the protagonist, is considered crazy by everyone except for her husband because of her grief. Her grief isn’t easy and while it’s self-destructive, it’s not self-sacrificing, making her one of the titular “Difficult Women” of the anthology. Natasha’s grief feels real, even though her story is fictional.
“Break All the Way Down” highlights what makes this book so cherished. Gay writes stories that feel like looking into a window into someone else’s mind, and she painstakingly provides the little details that readers can frequently only find in full-length novels.
The stories weren’t necessarily easy to read, with dark and sometimes depressing elements, but rather were enthralling and extraordinarily well-written. In a work with so many stories included, identifying a simple theme can be difficult. However, the stories in “Difficult Women” are at their core about women who are fighting and hoping for a better existence for themselves. “Difficult Women” is worth the effort, and leaves readers hopeful.
“Difficult Women” has important, real stories, with characters who speak to the reader despite their ‘difficulties.’ They are not the idealized women sometimes found in fiction, but women who seem genuine and deal with their lives in their own ways. Gay’s work is very different from much of what can be found in mainstream fiction and readers who have not gone through similar hardships as her characters can still empathize. Although the work is definitely women-oriented, I would not hesitate to recommend it to male readers as well. (Female readers, after all, are frequently asked to read male-centered works.)
The best review I could give for “Difficult Women” is that I read it in a day and a half.
Roxane Gay’s other works include the novels “An Untamed State” and “Ayiti,” as well as the essay collection “Bad Feminist.”