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Difficult Women is comprised of wildly different stories, ranging from realistic to magical, hopeful to dystopian. Only one constant remains throughout; women, who–in order to survive–must become more difficult than their situations. Each character–be she a grieving suburbanite mother, an international studies major who strips for tuition money, or a fantastical being made of glass–makes her own path towards sovereignty in the face of innumerable obstacles and violations. Many of the characters demonstrate an acute awareness of their own flaws and the ways in which they are accountable to the violence in their lives, be it emotional or physical.
One of the most luscious aspects of Gay’s characters is the way in which they refuse easy categorization, and often the most archetypal exterior disguises a complex and unexpected interior. That women possess unseen depths is, of course, no surprise at all to anyone who has ever identified as one (though it still manages to catch an absurd number of people off guard) and Gay makes it clear her characters are not here to fulfill fantasies or act as empty cyphers. Rather, they are here to demonstrate their difficulties, unquietly.
While most of the scenarios in Difficult Women are emotionally and physically brutal—twins abducted and tortured, a toddler killed by an unwary driver, a future in which the U.S. suffers a bloody cessation—there are moments of levity to be found. Gay excels at well-placed wry observation and occasional understated absurdity, such as when, in “Baby Arm,” the feral ecstasy of an all-girl fight club is interrupted only by a jab about one participant’s weight—“We all gasp because the tomboy is big-boned but she’s not fat.”
Stylistically, Gay doesn’t pull any punches; the prose is typically lean and crisp, embedded with only necessary details. The generosity with which each character is allowed to embody their ‘undesirable’ qualities renders their decisions and acts as morally neutral. In other words, while the reader witnesses these characters navigate worlds fraught with danger and moral devices, we are not invited to judge them, but rather to understand the ways in which their difficultness is their best chance at existence.
Difficult Women will leave you feeling cracked open and rummaged through, though it may also leave you with a sense of hope; just as there are endless ways for the world to devour you, so too are there endless ways of becoming difficult to swallow.
By Roxane Gay
Hardcover, 9780802125392, 256 pp.