Thursday, January 5, 2017

Book Review: "Difficult Women" by Roxane Gay

This is a crazy-good collection, filled with stories that are sometimes quirky, sometimes moving, sometimes ribald, sometimes funny, but nearly always utterly compelling. There are 21 stories in this collection—some last little more than a page, while some are much longer, but there is a real power in Roxane Gay's storytelling, whether the stories have an almost frenzied pace or proceed in a slower, more contemplative fashion.

While the title of this collection is Difficult Women, I don't think you could classify all of the main characters as difficult. Passionate, complex, unique, fascinating (in both good and bad ways), yes, but in my opinion, the word "difficult" connotes a negative quality that not all of these women have. Some of the characters are in the flush of love or suffering the pain of loss; some are motivated primarily by the need for sexual conquest, fulfillment, even degradation, while others want tenderness and companionship, if anything. Some are fiercely protective of others around them, while some are steadfastly selfish; some are wounded by the world around them, while others are ready to give as good as they get.

I enjoyed nearly every story in this collection, but my favorites included: "North Country," about an African-American engineer who takes a job in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and has to fend off the curiosity and advances of many of her colleagues, while coming to terms with her own secrets; "The Mark of Cain," which tells of a married woman whose husband has an identical twin brother, and she pretends not to notice when the brothers switch places; and "Break All the Way Down," a moving story about a woman numbed by extreme grief, who uses infidelity and rough sex to feel something again, and whose life is turned upside down by a late-night visitor.

Other favorites included "I Will Follow You," which focuses on two sisters who were abducted as children and are inseparable as adults, even though one is married; "How," about twin sisters each rooted in their own unhappiness, desperate to escape what is holding them back from what they crave; "La Negra Blanca," which focuses on a young stripper working to pay for college, who must face the demands of an entitled customer; and "The Sacrifice of Darkness," a story with a fairytale-like feel, about a couple living in a world of darkness and the curse they must bear.

I have never read anything Gay has written, so I was really blown away, by her use of language and imagery, the sexual frankness of many of her characters, and the richness of her characters. There's probably a story for everyone in this collection, although all of the stories might not appeal. (For those of you squeamish by descriptions of harm coming to animals, there are a few stories which go into graphic detail about hunting and other things.)

Difficult Women is a unique, powerful, well-told collection that will stay in my head for a long time. If you're a fan of short stories featuring women with a mind of their own, pick this one up.

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