By Heidi Simmons
What does it really mean when someone is described as difficult? Perhaps the onus is on the one making the claim? Could it be that difficult people are merely functioning on a different wavelength? Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women (Grove Atlantic, 260 pages) exposes how relationships in a male dominated society are always difficult.
In 21 short stories, author Gay provides tantalizing and provocative insights to the challenges of being true to one’s self, living outside the norm and accepting one’s flaws in a world that is unjust and disrespectful to women.
“I Will Follow You” tells the story of two sisters who are broken and damaged after a horrific incident as young girls. Now adults, they try to understand how to love and be loved by men. Fortunately, they have each other and an intimate bond that no man can come between.
The book’s title story, “Difficult Women” is divided into short chapters with subheadings: “Loose Women,” “Frigid Women,” “Crazy Women,” “Mothers,” and “Dead Girls.” These vignettes are not what they may at first seem. However, each delivers a sharper understanding of those we may consider difficult when actually they are misunderstood.
In “North Country,” a female African American engineering professor takes a job at a technical university in Michigan. She is the only woman in the department and constantly fights off advances by the other professors. When she meets a lumberjack, she must overcome her own prejudices and self-loathing before she can let him into her life.
“Bad Priest” is about a man who joins the priesthood because he is lazy and doesn’t want to worry about his livelihood or future. He is not religious, hates listening to confessions and has sex with broken women.
The story, “In the Event of My Father’s Death,” is about a young girl who gets a different perspective on the world, men and women, from her dad when he takes her along on weekends to his mistress’s mobile home.
“Noble Things” is about a couple coping after the “New Civil War” has divided up the United States. They have sent their son to live in the North Country with her parents. The wife wants to leave the South so they can all be together. But her husband is not sure he can stand up to his controlling father and leave everything he knows behind.
Three stories have a touch of magical realism that is beautiful, whimsical and meaningful. “Requiem for a Glass Heart,” “I Am a Knife,” and “The Sacrifice of Darkness” all reveal the intense love and devotion women have for those close to them.
Each story captivated me as I moved from one to the next without delay. I felt I was in good hands and that the author was fully present as she wrote these intimate tales of life, love and loss.
I found myself intrigued by the complicated characters who popped up in each story. Many of the women surprised me. Rich, poor, educated, unemployed, some I recognized and others I didn’t which made them especially compelling. Insight is not only found within the main characters, but the ancillary characters — both men and women — shed light on the different worlds as well.
Gay is observant, honest and has a knack for carefully revealing painful secrets. She is acutely aware of the worlds in which she writes, but allows for the story to unfold unforced and without proselytization.
These stories might appeal more to women then men, but men may appreciate a clearer view into “difficult” women if they genuinely care about equality and justice for all women. Men are as important in these stories as the women.
Intentional or not, there is a significant theme that resonates in this collection. Men and women are indeed different creatures, yet there remains an inequality that continues to put women at a disadvantage. The women must make hard choices for the sake of survival.
Women may seen to be “difficult” as they struggle for power, justice and equality. But, it is the antiquated patriarchal society that is truly difficult.