Do you love reading about complicated, captivating, difficult women? We fucking hope so — you’re reading BUST, after all. Whether you’re setting up your reading goals for 2017 or just looking for suggestions for something new, you need to drop everything and read Difficult Women by Roxane Gay.
You should know who Roxane Gay is, but in case you don’t, she’s the brilliantly talented author of the essay collection Bad Feminist and the novel An Untamed State (and Marvel’s World of Wakanda and the forthcoming memoir Hunger). If you haven’t read Bad Feminist or An Untamed State, do so, but Difficult Women is also a great entry point if you’ve missed Gay’s previous work.
Difficult Women is a collection of 21 short stories. The shortest is less than two pages long, while others that are over 20 pages. Though the stories can be vastly different in tone and sometimes genre, they have some similarities. Each has a woman as a main character — though Gay portrays many women of different ages, races, sizes, sexual orientations, and classes — and common themes, symbols and subjects reappear. Be warned that some of these subjects are, like the title says, difficult: there are rape scenes and scenes of abuse, and Gay doesn’t shy away from portraying the many different ways that men can harm women. But for me, this is part of what makes the collection so great: We need to think and talk about rape and abuse and exploitation if we ever want anything to change. The final story, “Strange Gods,” is heartbreaking and haunting but vital and necessary, and I’m so amazed by Gay’s talent and her willingness to share it.
I read a review of Difficult Women that joked that the book should have been titled Sad Women Having Sex. But for me, Gay’s treatment of sex makes this collection so powerful. Gay writes about sex in a way that illuminates her characters, her themes, and society. The story “Best Features” hit me where it hurts in its portrayal of a woman who “is fat and ugly but she gives good head so she rarely sleeps alone, which is not to say she’s not lonely.” Gay writes, “In the complex calculus between men and women, Milly understands that fat is always ugly and that ugly and skinny makes a woman eminently more desirable than fat and any combination such as beautiful, charming, intelligent, or kind. Milly is all those things. She knows it doesn’t matter.”
It’s true that many of the stories are sad or haunting, but Gay is also sometimes bitingly funny, as in the shortest story in the collection, “Open Marriage,” about a husband and wife simultaneously discussing opening their marriage and debating whether yogurt can expire.
And then there are the stories that combine sadness and humor. In the title story, Gay describes “Loose Women,” “Frigid Women,” “Crazy Women,” “Mothers” and “Dead Girls”; in one paragraph we see the Frigid Woman’s complete devastation at her mother’s death; half a page later, we’re laughing at the Crazy Woman’s clueless date who doesn’t understand that she keeps calling him not because he’s “got mad skills” and she’s crazy, but because she forgot her briefcase at his apartment.
Given the realism of her first novel, I was surprised and delighted to see Gay include several short stories that include elements of magical realism or are straight-up fantasy; several of these were among my favorites. “Requiem for a Glass Heart” tells the story of a glass wife and a stone thrower husband; “Noble Things” follows a family after the fictional second secession of the South and the New Civil War; in “The Sacrifice Of Darkness,” a man flies an air machine into the sun and plunges the world into darkness. These stories prove that Gay can conquer any genre she puts her mind to, and make me even more excited to see what she does in the future.
Gay’s dedication is to “difficult women, who should be celebrated for their very nature.” This book is filled with dozens of them, and they will stay with you for a long time after you read the final page.
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Erika W. Smith is BUST's digital editorial director. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @erikawynn and email her at email@example.com.