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Review: Roxane Gay's 'Difficult Women' offers stories with range and insight

The stories in Difficult Women range in length from a couple of pages to 20 or more. Some of the longer stories layer multiple characters and plots, like the title story, a catalog of “difficult” women and how they got that way.
Published Dec. 28, 2016

Fans of writer Roxane Gay won't be surprised to hear that her new short story collection, Difficult Women, deals with such subjects as sexual relationships, motherhood and body image, or that the stories' tones range from comic to harrowing, sometimes in a paragraph or two.

But they might be surprised that, though many of the stories are realistic, quite a few venture into the territory of magical realism. In one, a small town copes with life after the sun vanishes; in another, a man marries a woman made of glass, her pulsing heart always visible.

The collection is titled Difficult Women, although in most of the stories there are just as many difficult men. Women's lives have been Gay's most consistent subject, in her bracing nonfiction collection Bad Feminist, her gripping debut novel Untamed State, her multigenre collection Ayiti and her many essays for online and print publications.

In those works and in these stories, she writes fearlessly and with insight about love and power between men and women, about the horror of sexual violence and its inescapable aftershocks, about the fierce and flawed tenderness of mothers for their children.

The stories in Difficult Women range in length from a couple of pages to 20 or more. Some of the longer stories layer multiple characters and plots, like the title story, a catalog of "difficult" women and how they got that way. There is, for example, a section titled "What a Crazy Woman Thinks About While Walking Down the Street": how she's dressed, how to ignore catcalls, when to make or not make eye contact, whether she has her keys ready to use as a weapon. Gay writes, "She once told a boyfriend about these considerations and he said, 'You are completely out of your mind.' She told a new friend at work and she said, 'Honey, you're not crazy. You're a woman.' "

One of the longest and strongest stories is FLORIDA, which builds the story of life in a gated subdivision by visiting various addresses. At 3333 Palmetto Crest Circle, a new resident assesses her female neighbors: "The women in Naples all looked the same — lean and darkly tan, their faces narrow with hungered discipline, whittled by the same surgeon." At 1217 Ridgewood Rd Unit 11, a couple's foreplay consists of watching reality TV shows about "extraordinarily fat people" who can't even get out of their chairs unaided. The husband tells us, "Mornings after Thank God We're Not Fat Sex, the wife and I tend to hate each other a little so we don't speak." And upstairs at 1217 Ridgewood Rd Unit 23, we meet Tricia, a house cleaner. She's good at what she does, and because of her hard work she's in great shape. The women who employ her resent her bitterly for looking better than they do: "It wasn't fair. Money was supposed to make things fair."

In some stories, race complicates relationships. La Negra Blanca is about Sarah, who is working her way through Johns Hopkins University as a stripper. "She plans on working for the CIA because she has become quite efficient at passing," despite her mixed-race background. When a wealthy racist from an old Southern family becomes obsessed with her, he seems foolish — at first.

Power balance in sexual relationships runs through many of these stories, and often plays out in surprising ways. In Break All the Way Down, the narrator tells us, "My husband hates my new boyfriend. I do, too. He is the kind of person everyone hates. My husband is the man I love." What all that means, and what kind of person the narrator is, will not be what you expect. In The Mark of Cain and How, twins complicate each other's romantic relationships. In Bone Density, a couple's marriage revolves around taunting each other with their infidelities.

Sexual power plays are one thing; sexual violence is quite another. Strange Gods is a heartbreaking, powerful tale of betrayal and assault and the long-lasting effects — and the courage it takes to live with them.

The stories that have fantastic elements still ring true emotionally. Requiem for a Glass Heart is a strange little fable about a stone thrower (that's his actual occupation) who finds a woman made of glass on a beach. He marries her, and they have a little glass son, a fancy that Gay makes believable by showing us how the woman's transparency gives her freedom, but fills her husband with fear for her vulnerability — fear anyone can understand. It's a dangerous world for a woman, even if you're not made of glass.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com. Follow @colettemb.

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