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Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

I follow Roxane Gay on Twitter and I have heard her speak a few times but Difficult Women is the first book of hers that I’ve read. Overall, I have mixed feelings about the book and here’s my review…

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
Published: 2017
Reviewed by: Jen
Find it/buy it here: Difficult Women

Difficult Women is one of those books that I felt drawn to buy. I love the concept of covering the stories and experiences of a wide range of “difficult” women. And the book is brilliantly written – and I mean brilliant. But I felt conflicted about the book. On the one hand I absolutely adored certain stories and several of them hit me like a punch to the gut. The stories are raw and emotionally evocative. Several of them brought tears to my eyes and elicited my admiration in how well Gay is able to capture and describe the experience of certain women.

The book contains a vast array of stories. Some of them are grounded in realism, others are magical, and others a little of both. My personal favorites were the magical realism stories. There is a story about a woman made of glass who mets a man who is the first man to not see through her. He builds her a glass house and loves her but is concerned about her fragility. She runs each day to escape and test the limits of said fragility. It’s a beautiful and brilliant story that acts a metaphor for how many women are perceived and how they react to those perceptions. Another favorite is about a man who spends his life in the darkness of the mines and after years of sacrifice and never seeing the light of day, he flies into the sun and his need is so great that it devours the sun. His family suffer the consequences of his actions as they are held responsible for a world without sunlight.

Many of the stories are incredibly dark and violent. Rape, abuse, death of children, intimate violence are all prominent in this collection. And, the men in these stories are really the difficult ones. They are portrayed in not so flattering ways. In almost every story, the men are abusers, perpetrators, or rapists. The men of Gay’s collection are not complex or nuanced. They are there mostly to make a point and, to me were disappointingly flat as characters.

As stand alone stories they were all dazzling and well crafted, however as a collection, I struggled with the repetitive nature of some stories. Specifically, I was bothered by the repetition of the ways in which most of these women dealt with their pasts.  The women in the stories often felt driven to seek out violence, and in most cases violent sex, as a way of either coping with feelings of personal inadequacy, reactions to trauma, or as normative responses to being complex, difficult women. This repetition felt very constraining to me and limited what could have been a complex collection of the myriad of ways in which women impacted by trauma and earlier life stress manage these things in their lives. These are difficult women but 3/4 of them respond by seeking out violence, punishing sex, or terribly abusive partners.

Dead Girls
Death makes them more interesting. Death makes them more beautiful. It’s something about their bodies on display in final repose – eyes wide open, lips blue, limbs stiff, skin cold. Finally, it might be said, they are at piece.

Difficult Women will make you uncomfortable and some readers will not be able to make it past the first few stories. It will make you feel all kinds of emotions and it will make you want to talk about the themes with others. Despite my mixed feelings, I think it’s book that is worth reading and one that is quite thought-provoking.

If you want to try it for yourself, you can buy your copy here: Difficult Women

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m having trouble wading in to this one. I have a copy from net galley, and I’m not sure I want to finish it.

    Liked by 1 person

    March 25, 2017
    • It is a challenging read in many ways. I had to put it down several times.


      March 25, 2017
      • I think what challenged me most was that I got this nihilistic feeling from the prose that nothing really mattered. That’s probably just me. But now that I’m thinking about it, I’m definitely DNFing it. :/

        Liked by 1 person

        March 25, 2017
      • I don’t think the tone of it changed at all so probably makes sense to bail if you aren’t loving it. Ultimately I liked enough about it to persevere but I can see why others won’t like it

        Liked by 1 person

        March 25, 2017
  2. jesshodg #

    I owed this back to the library today and hadn’t even picked it up so used your review last night to pick the stories that I should read – really enjoyed the fable of the glass woman. They (the ones I chose anyway) worked as individual stories to dip into, but obviously can’t comment on the collection. Thanks for the review!

    Liked by 1 person

    June 17, 2017

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