Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Reviewing anticipated works like these is always difficult, especially if you're reviewing the book before it's been officially published. I'm not sure about others, but I always feel a tremendous amount of pressure - I want to give my honest opinion, but I also want to be as objective as possible and explain, more broadly, what the book is about and who the audience is.

I'd heard stellar things about Roxane Gay's BAD FEMINIST. It's been on my to-read list for ages. I was thrilled to be approved for an advance reader copy of her latest book, DIFFICULT WOMEN. Women are told from childhood not to be "difficult": to be soft-spoken, easy-going, and unassuming. The title, DIFFICULT WOMEN, made me think of Elizabeth Wurtzel's similarly titled book, BITCH: IN PRAISE OF DIFFICULT WOMEN. I anticipated stories of women, all kinds of women, who don't fit the stereotypical mold but are still women - living breathing women - with hopes, and stories, and dreams.

What I got...was not quite that.

Ordinarily with anthologies, I'll do a breakdown of each story, provide a summary and my thoughts, and then a rating. Since I'm a little burned out on anthologies, this anthology in particular, I'm not going to be as thorough (although if you're curious, check out my status updates for this book - I assigned each story a rating there). Plus, I think I'm going to be pushing the char limit as is.

DIFFICULT WOMEN is an odd collection, with stories ranging in length from a single page to almost thirty. Some of the stories are magic-realism, others uncomfortably realistic. It felt like the unifying theme of this book was that women are victims and men are the perpetrators. There was a whole lot of rape, abuse, and objectification in this book. A whole lot. It got really exhausting after a while, and maybe that was the point. I did wonder if DIFFICULT WOMEN was a bold middle finger to the people out there who blame the victim, especially when the victims are female, and call them "difficult" without caring to understand what caused them to be that way. If that is the case, then the author accomplished that goal...but to a desolate and rather miserable end.

I Will Follow You was my favorite story, and the one that I found the most emotionally engaging. It's about two sisters who suffered a horrible trauma when they were younger. Now that one of them is married the nature of their relationship is changing, but the closeness between them is undeniable. This story made me tear up, because it's so powerful, and just great all around.

Water, All Its Weight is a bizarre magic realism story about a girl who is followed by rain all the time, and how the water pushes her away from loved ones. I'm sure it's meant to symbolize something, but I wasn't sure what. The style of this one kind of reminded me of Laura Esquivel's work. I like Esquivel, so I liked this story, even if I didn't fully understand what it meant.

The Mark of Cain is about a woman who is married to a twin. He switches place with his twin sometimes for fun, little knowing that his wife is well aware of what he's doing and secretly prefers the twin. When her husband is playing musical beds, he trades places with his twin's girlfriend, who isn't aware of what is going on. This is the first of many a-hole husband cheating stories.

Difficult Women got me really excited because it's the titular story! I think the intent of this one is to humanize the derogatory stereotypes that are sometimes used to label women by providing them with a backstory that could conceivably explain their present state. I thought this one was decent, but the whole time I was aware of the irony that many of these backstories were stereotypes themselves.

Florida is split into several different narratives, and takes place in the town of Naples, Florida, and all the wealthy women who live there (as well as some of the not-so-wealthy ones). Using these narratives, the author makes some interesting statements about race and class.

La Negra Blanca is a story about a pole dancer who is half-black, half-white, and using her career to pay for her college education (which is also super cliche, but this is possibly because I've read way too many new adult books, and this is the go-to money making scheme in that genre). She has two men in her life: one of them is Latino and poor, the other one is rich and white. It is a brutally tragic and unfair story, and I think if I had to choose, this is the story that made me the angriest.

Baby Arm is a story I blanked out on. It wasn't very good. A weird romance.

North Country was another favorite, because it's a beautiful romance that also highlights many of the nuanced and subtle acts of racism people of color experience on a day to day basis. After the first story in this collection, I think I'd say this was my second favorite.

How was a weird story. Women with sh*tty lives, surrounded by sh*tty men. One of women is a lesbian, which was kind of nice (diversity!). I wished the relationship between them had been developed more. Based on what happened in the story, I expected more of an emotional connection between them.

Requiem for a Glass Heart was another story where I wasn't sure if it was supposed to be symbolic and I just wasn't understanding the symbolism. It felt like it was about a family that was just going through the motions, and living without passion. Okay.

In the Event of My Father's Death is another story that I blanked out on. I'm looking at my status update for it right now and apparently it had a twist ending, but I don't remember what it was.

Break All the Way Down is a story about grief and loss. I appreciated what it was trying to do, but didn't really care for the execution. Basically: woman cannot cope with the loss of her child.

Bad Priest is exactly what it sounds like. It's about a priest who is having sex with a much younger woman. They have an odd dynamic. There is a lot of sex. Sex is a recurring theme in this book, too, BTW. I wasn't expecting so much erotic content. Nearly every story in this collection gets graphic.

Open Marriage was one of the very short stories I alluded to in the beginning. This one, like Bad Priest, is also self-explanatory, but it feels snarkier than many of the stories before it.

Pat felt well-intentioned, but also came across as condescending. I liked the message of befriending people who aren't much to look at on the surface, but the reason given for this is kind of insulting. It isn't quite clear of the person who is giving this message is being condemned or not for it, either. The author is really good at writing with a "poker face." I really had trouble gauging her intent.

Best Features really reminded me of the book 13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT A FAT GIRL, a book I really enjoyed despite its dark and frequently uncomfortable content. It's a story about an overweight girl who feels like she has to sleep with men to get them to be with her...but she's also self-aware enough about it to feel a biting anger that made her interesting.

Bone Density is story of two academics who are married...and cheating on each other. Despite this, they still love each other (sort of) but the proverbial spark is fading. Odd.

I am a Knife is another magic realism story. I actually liked this one more before the magic realism element came into play. After that, it got weird. And kind of gory. o_0

The Sacrifice of Darkness is another magic realism story that doesn't even feel like it belongs in this collection. It's about a miner who pulls an "Icharus" one day, and flies so close to the sun that he puts it out of the sky. His legacy lives on through his son, who has to live with all the resentment of the people in his town. It also has a love story. I kind of liked this one, despite its strangeness.

Noble Things was my least favorite. It was boring. I skimmed it. Don't ask me about this one.

Strange Gods was probably the third-best story in the bunch. One of the flaws of this book is that many similar stories are placed in close proximity to each other - such as How and In the Event of My Father's Death - so that they end up running together. I did, however, like that the two most realistic and emotionally gripping stories were placed like bookends at the beginning and the end. Strange Gods is a story about rape, and how the effects of it can ripple throughout one's life.

Like I said before, I feel like this collection is supposed to embody the anger and helplessness that arise because of sexism and misogyny. It is a hopeless and heartbreaking book. I did wish that there were some uplifting or more complex stories in this book, however, like women who are working in careers mostly dominated by men, or women who are starting major or minor rebellions, or trans women, or women who don't wear makeup or don't feel the need to be pretty. I did like the attempt at intersectionality, and appreciated how many of these stories were about women of color specifically (with a few lesbian storylines thrown in), but I felt like this collection could have been so much more.

I'm not mad at DIFFICULT WOMEN and I do think it will stir up some interesting and important discussions, but it wasn't what I was expecting or hoping for.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the free copy!

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars.


  1. Great review, Ms. Nenia!
    "I Will Follow You" was my favorite and for me, the most heart-breaking.
    "North Country" was another story I enjoyed - a 'break' in the storms of her narratives, before the waters became turbulent again (in a manner of speaking).

    1. Your two favorites were my two favorites!

      I Will Follow You was so beautiful and so sad. It reminded me of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones a bit - two sisters trying to find themselves after a terrible tragedy, where love ultimately conquers all.

      North Country was definitely a nice break from all the dysfunctional relationships. I'm a sucker for a good love story.