Difficult Women by Roxane Gay – A collection of stories as subversive and complex as its female protagonists

The women in these stories live lives of privilege and of poverty, are in marriages both loving and haunted by past crimes or emotional blackmail. A pair of sisters, grown now, have been inseparable ever since they were abducted together as children, and must negotiate the marriage of one of them. A woman married to a twin pretends not to realize when her husband and his brother impersonate each other. A stripper putting herself through college fends off the advances of an overzealous customer. A black engineer moves to Upper Michigan for a job and faces the malign curiosity of her colleagues and the difficulty of leaving her past behind. From a girls’ fight club to a wealthy subdivision in Florida where neighbors conform, compete, and spy on each other, Gay delivers a wry, beautiful, haunting vision of modern America reminiscent of Merritt Tierce, Jamie Quatro, and Miranda July.

My biggest thanks to Hachette New Zealand, for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The more and more I think about it, the more certain I am that Difficult Women is a masterful collection of short stories.

To describe it simply, Difficult Women is about just that – it is a collection of twenty-one short stories that are about the so-called ‘difficult women’. Underneath that though is a nuanced and complex portrayal of women in modernity – and the images are haunting and riveting, and will inevitably sear your memory.

Gay interweaves magical realism, metaphor, the fantastical, the absurd, the far-fetched as well as the absolutely mundane into her stories. They are so invariably different, but they all share something in common: they portray and center on female characters and her narrative. There is an ambition in Difficult Women though – more than just female characters, the stories delve into the moments and lives of women that are often painted invisible with society’s broad brush. Difficult Women is about hurt women (“North Country“), abused women (“Break All The Way Down“), traumatised women (“I Will Follow You“), misunderstood women (“Difficult Women“), angry women (“Noble Things“) – the list goes on.

Though the stories are invariably about women and their lives, Difficult Women is a collection that explores themes of sex, trauma, privilege, poverty, motherhood, marriage, love, and loss. Some of its stories are haunting, most were emotional, and some were difficult to read – in saying that, Difficult Women is not for the lighthearted (please see the trigger warnings disclosed at the bottom). There were some stories that were distinctly better than others, with some feeling underdeveloped thematically or character-wise. However, the particularly good stories were powerful and possessed marvelous precision with its ideas and themes. I marvel at Gay’s remarkable way of words.

The descriptor of ‘difficult women’ is a loaded term that is often weaponised against women that do not conform to traditional ideas of gender. Gay cleverly subverts the idea of ‘difficult women’ by portraying them for what ‘difficult women’ usually are: incredibly complex, utterly flawed, and absolutely human. Gay goes further than to portray flawed women – Gay portrays women who shatter traditional gendered expectations of how women ought to think, behave, and perceive the world. The discontent, resentment or resignation of these women is confronting and hard-hitting. More importantly, such portrayals are not discourse on women in modernity – it is about modernity itself.

Therefore, reading Difficult Women is a unique experience; its stories are multifaceted, are guaranteed to challenge preconceived ideas of womanhood and gender, and offer new insights and ideas in a society and age where women have adapted in sad to extraordinary ways to survive. With hardhitting and fearless honesty, Difficult Women is an unforgettable homage to the ‘difficult’ women in our society and their strength, and a necessary piece of work that humanises the people often dehumanised. A must-read for feminists or those interested in reading darker fiction.

Rating: 4/5

Book Information
Book Name: Difficult Women
Author: Roxane Gay
Publisher: Corsair
Format: Paperback

Difficult Women in:
Goodreads | Book Depository | Hachette NZMy review on Goodreads

(Book content and trigger warnings: violence, sexual violence, graphic scenes, sex) 

If you haven’t read any of Gay’s books, you absolutely should! I’ve read Bad Feminist and now Difficult Women – both are accessible and thought-provoking pieces of work that I cannot recommend enough.

  • Have you read Difficult Women? What did you think?
  • Have you read any of Gay’s other work? What are your thoughts?
  • What are women and/or feminist narratives that you would like to see more of? What ideas should we explore?

17 thoughts on “Difficult Women by Roxane Gay – A collection of stories as subversive and complex as its female protagonists

  1. I read Difficult Women earlier this year and absolutely loved it. It became one of my favorite short story collections. I’m glad that you appreciated it as much as I did.

    • Aw, thank you Emily!! I do my best!
      Ooh both are fantastic but so different! Difficult Women can get kinda heavy because of its hard-hitting subject matter, so I read one story a day. Bad Feminist can be read in one sitting, and I found Gay’s writing so refreshing too. :)

  2. Fantastic review – I always marvel at bloggers who go through and specifically name short stories in their reviews (I’m always lazy and talk about the collection as a whole). Difficult Women is so fantastic – like you, its the first of Gay’s fiction that I’ve read. I’m definitely checking out her other fiction soon!!

    • Hi Wendy!
      Haha, I made the effort this time! Otherwise I’d probably resort to more general comments about the book as a whole.
      Oooh may I recommend Bad Feminist? It’s non-fic and a collection of essays, but I find her humour and insights so refreshing – maybe you’ll enjoy it? :D

  3. Great review! I’ve put this down since I am a little sad the other day and the book is making me sad even more. But I am inclined to pick it up again, your review is that sign I’ve been waiting for.

    • Hi Eunice!
      Ahhhh I completely understand that. It took me two-ish weeks to finish the book because some of the stories were very hard-hitting.
      I hope you enjoy the rest of the book! One of the last stories in the collection was really, really good, and I enjoyed it a lot. :D

      • I was only few pages in, and it instantly reminded me of A Little Life, a book that crushed me, and I don’t know if I still have the strength to go through the same thing! Hope to pick it up again very soon.

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