3.5/5 – When I finished Bad Feminist last year, I knew I wanted to read more by Roxane Gay. Not every essay was great, but the ones that were blew me away. She is an excellent writer and my rating of this book reflects the average score of all the stories. Some were 5 stars, a few I gave 1 star. Like Bad Feminist, I feel like a few of the stories didn’t need to be included as they were along the same theme and also a few just didn’t fit at all. However, there are some fantastic stories in here that I hope everyone gets a chance to read. This wasn’t an easy read by any means, there is a lot of horrible things that happen to women in different stories. There is also sexual content in pretty much every story, which isn’t bad, I just wasn’t expecting it. I will be giving a breakdown of my thoughts on all of the stories in a short-ish paragraph so buckle in, this might be a long one.
Before I start, I am going to let everyone know about the potentially triggering content in this book and will have content warnings, if applicable, before each story. This book contains the following content: kidnapping, pedophilia, rape, domestic abuse, violence against women, mentions of incest, adultery, stillbirths, and death of a child. If there is anything I missed, I apologize.
I Will Follow You – 5/5
- CW: kidnapping, pedophilia, rape
- This is a story about two sisters who are inseparable after being kidnapped and held for six weeks when they were ten and eleven. They are incredibly close because they are the only two who knows what the other went through in that time. They stick together so that the other doesn’t have to be alone. Even if the narrator is unwilling to go Nevada so her sister can reunite with her husband she does. Kind of a heavy story to start out the collection, but at the core is this relationship between the sisters. A bond that won’t ever break and the knowledge that they will always protect each other.
Water, All Its Weight – 3/5
- This story is gorgeous and is very effective when using figurative language. It’s the story of Bianca and how water, and as a result, mold follow her everywhere she goes and it ends up chasing away those who love her. I think it’s clear that the water and mold is a metaphor for something. Something that causes everyone to turn away from her despite her beauty. I couldn’t tell you what the metaphor represents. That’s why I liked this story but didn’t love it.
The Mark of Cain – 5/5
- CW: Domestic abuse, adultery
- So far, this has been my favorite story. The basic premise is a woman pretends not to notice when her husband, Caleb switches places with his twin, Jacob. She knows her husband well enough to know when his brother is there, not him. For me, this was taking the issue of domestic abuse and splitting the abuser into two people, literally. There is the abusive side and the kind, sweet side. The narrator loves Jacob more because he is kind and attentive while her husband Caleb is with another woman. I think this story was a great way to show the duality of an abusive person and why someone would stay in that situation.
Difficult Women – 4/5
- I liked this story as it broke down different “types” of women. Loose women, frigid women, crazy women, and mothers. These all conjure up assumptions or stereotypes about these kinds of women. We think we know exactly what a loose woman does, feels and looks like, her whole history. The truth is, we don’t know shit. These labels don’t mean anything and we cannot define a woman with one label. They are far more complicated than that and nobody bothers to take notice.
FLORIDA – 4/5
- This story was very interesting to me because all of the characters lived in or worked in a gated community. The variety of women (and one man) and the various different voices was what made this story interesting. The women all had their own experiences and their own stories, whether it was the woman who led the Zumba classes, the newest addition to the neighborhood, or a couple obsessed with watching docs about fat people so they feel better about themselves. What I noticed were the majority, if not all of the stories told were from the perspective of outsiders. Those who didn’t fit in with the wealthy, white, skinny, beautiful, gated community. Some of the vignettes were told in first person perspective, some in third, it was really interesting overall to present these stories the way she did. I have never read a short story like this before and I thought it was well done.
La Negra Blanca – 3/5
- CW: Rape
- This was an interesting story. There is Sarah who goes to college during the day and strips at night because she has to pay for part of her education with money out of her pocket. She is biracial with a black mother and a white father, but she looks white. In that way, I connected with her. I too am biracial. This story revolves around a man, one of Sarah’s clients, who fetishize black women. He’s a disgusting, revolting character and he starts to become possessive of Sarah, despite her never indicating that she was interested. Quite the opposite actually. It’s not exactly the thing I wanted to read about. I thought it was a well-written story, but not my favorite by any means.
Baby Arm – 3/5
- This story is from the perspective of a woman who is dating a guy mostly for the sex. She talks about her lack of interest in anything more until he brings her a fiberglass baby arm. I’m positive this story will be remembered for the fact that it has a female fight club. I think about the twisted relationships. The narrator and Gus, her sort of boyfriend and her relationship with Tate her best friend. I believe her and Tate created the female fight club and they have an interesting relationship. One which crosses the boundaries of what a friend is and yet still have boundaries they don’t cross. The story ends with Tate on speakerphone telling Gus to be rough with the narrator during sex and instructing him to do so. When the narrator orgasms she calls out her best friend’s name. Yeah, this one was weird. The fucked up relationships and the weird fiberglass baby parts made this story the weirdest so far.
North Country – 4/5
- CW: stillbirth, adultery
- As I read this story, I came back to the title of this collection. Difficult Women. In this story, our narrator Kate has moved up north to Michigan. She is the only woman, the only black woman, in her department at the Michigan Institute of Technology. All of her colleagues hit on her. She is also recovering from her long-term boyfriend cheating on her and a stillbirth. It’s clear she is still in pain and isn’t quick to trust. She meets a man named Magnus, actually, he inserts himself into her life. The get closer and closer, but she continues keeping him at arm’s length until the point where he can’t deal with it anymore. Time passes in just a sentence sometimes, as the highlights are picked out for us to see. We notice the important things and skip over the everyday things. Not every man would’ve waited for Kate, not every man would’ve dealt with her stubbornness or unwillingness to move past sex. But Magnus does.
How – 3/5
- CW: mentions/hints of sexual abuse, mentions/hints of incest, adultery
- This story is about Hanna, who is dissatisfied with her life. She is the only one who works in a house full of her family. She works two jobs, pretends to be a student at Michigan Institute of Technology and enjoys the attention of the men there, and she is in love with her best friend who she plans on running away with. In this story, as well as a couple of others so far, Hanna is in love with her best friend Laura, but they don’t talk about it. I wish they would’ve. Clearly, her husband wasn’t the man she wanted to be with and she will be much happier with Laura, but they refuse to acknowledge their relationship. It’s a bit frustrating. I know this isn’t the main focus of the story. It’s Hanna’s dilemma in leaving her family behind. Her abusive father and her useless husband. The men in her life which have disappointed her and let her down. Overall, I couldn’t really get into it.
Requiem for a Glass Heart – 4/5
- CW: adultery
- This is definitely one of the more unique stories in this collection. It’s a story in which a flesh and blood man, falls for and marries a woman made of glass. Very odd, but I enjoyed it. I think it had more going on than just a man being married to a glass woman. He is referred to as a “stone-thrower” and yet he treats his wife so carefully and delicately. Afraid that she will break, but she doesn’t. It would probably take me a few more reads and a college course to unpack everything here, but on the whole, I enjoyed it.
In the Event of My Father’s Death – 2/5
- CW: adultery
- I found this story disappointing. The majority of the story, Stephanie the narrator is detailing her father’s affair with a woman named Theresa and how he would take her with him and they would spend the weekend there. That alone would’ve been a fine story, a three-star story at least. However, there are implications that Stephanie is a lesbian. Other than a “surprising twist” to the story, which hinted that Stephanie would start an affair with Theresa after he died, it didn’t add anything. It could’ve gone a lot further frankly and been more explicit. I wish it had. It would’ve been a lot more interesting than a story full of cliches.
Break All the Way Down – 4/5
- CW: Violence against women, death of a child, adultery
- I liked this story a lot. It wasn’t easy to read but it was an examination of grief and how a woman punishes herself for the death of her child. She has two men in her life, her husband and a man she’s with because he’ll hurt her. She refers to him as her boyfriend, but that is a loose word for what he is. Then an ex of her boyfriend leaves her child with Natasha, the narrator. We see that she visits her husband often despite refusing to come home for good. He’s a good, kind man who loves her and would never hit her. And yet, she continues punishing herself using an abusive man. It’s all very heartbreaking and while it’s not an easy read (none of these stories are), I liked the story overall and how some people seek out physical pain to cover up the emotional pain they are feeling.
Bad Priest – 2/5
- This story wasn’t bad. I just didn’t care. I don’t care about a priest having an affair with a woman and feeling shame about it. I don’t care about that woman loving him despite how shitty he is to her. I just don’t care.
Open Marriage – 1/5
- This story was the shortest so far. It is a husband and wife arguing about whether yogurt spoils, her husband brings up the idea of an open marriage, she encourages him because apparently, he couldn’t find a woman to fuck him in a million years, and then she eats the yogurt. That’s literally it. The husband wants an open marriage because of an article he reads and it seems unlikely he’ll follow through, but this story doesn’t explore the complications or nuances of open marriages. So, I find myself asking, what was the point?
A Pat – 1/5
- If that last story annoyed me, this story made me throw up my hands in annoyance. This comes up over and over, but I don’t get the point. This collection is about difficult women, I’m aware of this, and the theme has been pretty apparent. Hell, it could be called Complicated Women because often I feel for these women. Not this one. We get two pages to get to know her as she introduces herself to a seemingly homeless man, takes him home, cooks for him, lets him shower, and has sex with him. He’s grateful. She, on the other hand, reminisces about her mother telling her to make friends with ugly and lonely people so she can feel better about herself. She doesn’t even know the man’s name, and I felt like she thought she was giving this man something special, herself. I don’t like the way this story came across because if there was a positive message here it was ruined by the last few lines.
Best Features – 4/5
- This was a really strong story. It’s about Milly who is fat and because of that she settles for someone because she thinks she doesn’t deserve better. She always puts out because she feels she has to. This story hit me hard and I think there is a lot of truth to what she is writing. Something I didn’t feel in some of the earlier stories I didn’t enjoy. This story’s tone is that these are things Milly believes are the truth, maybe it is in some instances. We live in a culture that’s obsessed with beauty and has their own rules about what beauty is. Not everyone who is beautiful fits into those rules. Someone else’s weight has nothing to do with you. Believe it or not, there are more to fat people than just their weight.
Bone Density – 5/5
- CW: adultery
- I loved this story. Partly because it’s about a cheating husband, but his wife is cheating as well. In spite of him. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t bother her or hurt her because it does. She loves her husband and knows he loves her and yet he continues to cheat. He barely tries to hide it. Clearly, their marriage is worth something. It’s better than being alone. Things aren’t always black or white, good or bad, and while I don’t believe cheating is good, it’s not reason enough for her to leave him. This combined with the gorgeous imagery of winter and snow is why I enjoyed this story so much.
I Am a Knife – 3/5
- CW: stillbirth
- I really enjoyed the beginning of this story. I was really into it, again there was wintery, snowy imagery and an interesting relationship, but then it got grotesque with the imagery and I wasn’t a fan of that. Sex is also a huge theme in almost all of these stories and for me, it just didn’t land in this story. I understood it, but it involved themes she had already gone over before in other stories. Sex as a way to forget. Sex as a punishment. It would’ve been better if it wasn’t so similar to other stories and didn’t have the horrifying imagery.
The Sacrifice of Darkness – 3/5
- This story starts off with a man who flew into the sun and as a result, the sun disappears. This isn’t the first story with magical realism elements in this collection, and I really did enjoy the story. It ends up being the story of a girl who falls in love and eventually marries that man’s son. The story is divided into parts, and really could’ve been two separate stories but I think of it this way, it’s the story of Hiram Hightower, his son Joshua, and his granddaughter. Three generations of a family that people wanted to wipe out because of Hiram’s actions in making the sun disappear. The world itself might be dark, but the lives of Joshua and his wife are brightened by their daughter Dawn.
Noble Things – 4/5
- This story was an alternate future where America dissolved as the South successfully seceded and there was a second Civil War. The story revolved around a couple, the man Parker who wanted to stay in the South because it was home and the woman, Anna who wanted to leave so that they could be with their son again. They had sent him away so he didn’t learn the hate that was taught in Southern schools. I thought the concept of the story was interesting. It’s an interesting backdrop to set a story in and I liked it. The way it caused a strain on Parker and Anna’s marriage was interesting to see. Their dynamic was interesting as she was bold and loud and he wasn’t. I think this story was better than most and I liked it a lot.
Strange Gods – 5/5
- CW: gang rape, sexual harassment
- The final story in this collection is probably the one with the most impact. It’s in second person, so the narrator is talking to “you” a man whose proposals she’s declined four times previously and he’s asked her a fifth time. The story goes on to detail the things she let men do to her treating her like she was low and a piece of meat. Then she tells the story of her first boyfriend named Steve and how he and his friends raped her after he led her to an abandoned cabin. For anyone who has read Bad Feminist knows this actually happened to Roxane Gay as she writes about it multiple times. I wasn’t expecting to see it pop up in one of her fictional stories but I’m not surprised. Writing is an outlet after all. I did think this story was really strong and with it being in second person perspective it felt like a letter. It was beautiful and heartbreaking and not easy to read, but it was probably one of the better stories out of all of them.