A difficult woman is shorthand for one who thinks and acts outside patriarchal values and refuses to be defined by commonly held notions of femininity. The women in Gay’s collection come from different backgrounds and each lives within her own set of unique circumstances, but are all difficult in their own ways. They are all searching for identity, understanding, and reasons to both stay and go. Gay’s stories are sometimes graphic, sometimes allegorical, and always meaningful.
Gay repeatedly returns to the theme of twins in her stories. A woman married to a twin pretends not to know when the brothers switch places. Twin sisters work up the courage to break free from their alcoholic father. A woman delivers her twin sister’s baby, even while her own womb aches for the child she had lost. Twins are both grounded to reality, and unbounded by their shared genetic codes. They are literal manifestations of the metaphysical splitting we all feel: each difficult woman is dual-sided, a coin to be flipped, both soft and hard, forgiving and unrelenting. The theme of twins in this collection explores the duality of human nature, and the human heart.
These stories are both literal and allegorical. A stone thrower marries a glass woman. He loves and worships her; she mesmerizes him. Yet he relieves his baser carnal desires with a flesh and blood mistress, one he cannot worship or coddle or break. “Water and its damages,” trails Bianca, her lovemaking calling rain down to the world. A woman hunter has no need of weapons, she is a knife, cutting through the flesh of animals, delivering her sister’s baby on the roadside following a car accident. A miner flies into the sun, erasing the light and throwing the world into chaos. These stories require a suspended sense of belief, and yet they manage to say something deeper and more true about being alive and female than many more literal tales.
Gay demonstrates a deep understanding of human nature, yet one story stands out as particularly prescient after the 2016 presidential election. In “Nobel Things,” the South has seceded from the United States following a second Civil War and the building of a great wall along the Mason-Dixon line. The New South is a Caucasian settlement, one that honors the ancestry of tobacco farmers and plantation owners who shaped the ideology that led to the Austerity Articles, the Constitution of the South. This is an America divided, decisively sundered from each other, each landscape derisive of the one on the opposite side of the wall. Gay’s story gives us a glimpse of a world with two Americas, each too wrapped up in their own idea of what is right, too invested in holding on to their hurt and anger, to consider negotiating with the other side. Gay paints a grim picture, but only by exploring these possibilities through fiction can we come to a different conclusion, one that helps us shape a better world for everyone, men, women, and minorities alike.
Gay’s writing is clean, her style unfettered by unnecessary words. Her prose is stark and powerful, evocative and unmarred by outside expectation. Gay’s stories, while entertaining and inherently readable, are also deeply personal, and will stay with readers for years to come. This collection helps females find and honor the difficult woman inside all of us, and helps other readers understand, and see how to love, respect, and nurture the difficult women in their own lives.