Sometimes, when a book seems to be all anyone's talking about, it can be easy to be swept up in the hype without really understanding why it comes so highly recommended. But with Difficult Women by Roxanne Gay (you've probably seen the pink heart front cover on Instagram), it’s easy to see why it’s everywhere. From the dedication, which reads “For difficult women, who should be celebrated for their very nature”, there’s a sense this will stick with you.
This latest offering from award-winning author Roxanne Gay comes in the form of a collection of what The Guardian terms “bold feminist stories” detailing the lives of 20 women. But this isn't a collection of narratives about defiant, bold females. Of course, some characters do display these traits, but the ‘difficulty’ for these women is the presence of difficult and abusive men in their lives. Gay uses Difficult Women to cut through the somewhat suffocating idea of the strong, ‘perfect’, rebellious feminist to introduce characters who settle, surrender and comply.
Narrating the lives, friendships, compromises and relationships of both the privileged and impoverished, expect everything from a female fight club to a woman who pretends not to notice her husband swaps places with his twin and a stripper funding herself through college. It’s this breadth of experiences that makes the book so striking – no perspective is excluded, which is to be expected from an author who has spent much of her time campaigning for intersectional feminism.
If you were looking for a book that presents an idealised, smooth-around-the-edges view of powerful women fighting against a patriarchal world, this isn't it. But that's the point.
A refreshingly honest and nuanced portrayal of the intricacies of sexism and being a woman, The Washington Post commends Gay for her “allowance for human complexity” in the narratives. There are no quippy mantras or 'Ten Steps To Success' chapters, no slightly patronising narrator detailing how they became the CEO of some Fortune 500 company so you can too. It’s dark, unfiltered and challenging. Admittedly, it’s not perfect, the tropes of abusive men and masochistic women are sometimes, as The Guardian notes, “in danger of suggesting that women can find abuse both cathartic and sexually satisfying”.
In terms of the plot, Gay doesn't try to string the stories together, she makes no bones about flitting between narrative styles, third and first person, continuing one story for 20 pages and ending another after two. Some are realistic, some are fantasy – there is a cloud that follows a woman wherever she goes, rotting the inside of her apartment – but there are recurring motifs that shed light on the central themes that preoccupy Gay as a writer: femininity, birth, violence. Beautifully written, if sometimes a little clumsy, the allegories and tales can’t help but captivate.
Forceful and unapologetic, Difficult Women is troubling, powerful and unforgettable. As The New York Times attests, “you really have no idea what’s going to happen next.” Get a copy now, it will stay with you for a while.