Let me be clear: I love short story collections. When done well, short stories can hold great literary (and personal) value to me. Most collections have a few stories that aren't on par with the rest and one or two stellar stories. Difficult Women is not like this. Each story feels real, often magical, but always tangible. Some are allegories, some are simply insightful, while others are brimming with emotion--and they are all excellent.
It is ovbious that Gay is using the female experience as her focuse of this collection--something that she has successfully drawn upon in the past with her essay collection, Bad Feminist. Her stories explore self-realization, sexuality, hope, relationships in romantic and familial states, birth, and death. They're full of both mundane moments and magical ones. Her characters are unflinchingly real. They are flawed, have desires, shames, secrets, and one's father-in-law destroyed the sun and plunged the earth into a darkness that matched his heart. One woman is even perpetually followed by a rain cloud.
In short, they're difficult women. Their emotions and actions don't operate within societal standards. In Hollywood, we see these women as witches, whores, and failed mothers. We see them as drug addicts, mistresses, and screeching soccer moms. Gay turns that trope on its head and explores women, in all their unique beauty and dysfunctionality, as individual persons worthy of exposition. And she executes this skillfully. Her words flow off the page while each story leaves you craving for the next one.
My favorites were: "I Am A Knife", "The Sacrifice of Darkness", "Baby Arm", and "Open Marriage".
Read if you loved: Bad Feminist & An Untamed State (both by Gay), A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel, and The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
I give this book 5 out of 5 stars!
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Lisa Muir’s debut collection of short stories, Taking Down the Moon, is something you definitely don’t want to miss. With characters that feel so real they could step off the page to locations she vividly paints for your imagination to latch onto, these stories will grab you from the start. The women and men in her stories are weak and strong, pathetic and admirable, intelligent and willfully ignorant. They make you cringe with embarrassment, gape in horror, and shiver with anticipation. Truly, you’ll run the gamut of emotions reading this collection. It feels as if Muir orchestrated an emotional symphony, for you to dip into over and over again. It’s hard to say which story was my favorite but I will highlight a few that really spoke to me.
“The Louche Watermelon Queen”--I will preface this by saying that I am a huge fan of extremely short fictions, or flash fiction. This story is one page long and exquisite. As the first story in the series, it sets the tone for the rest of the stories perfectly. Even if you don’t read short story collections in order, you should still start with this one. A one-time beauty queen has grown older and gained weight. We all yearn for younger or better versions of ourselves but just how much would you wish for to acquire your desires? The Watermelon Queen speaks to the desperation you can feel when you don’t think you measure up and the darkness of mind that can follow.
“Albatross”--Hillary and Ben are young, intelligent, and in love. They have opportunities to travel, to explore, to reach for more and more. At least, that’s how Ben looks at it, as he begins seeking out yet another position with yet another university. They’d already moved across the world, from Virginia to New Zealand to appease his flightiness. And then from one island to another. It was only for a short time but the house the university provided was too cold, too damp, too small, too dark. Yet, Ben could never be happy, so he moves on again. Hillary must decide whether her movement depends on his and if her relationship with Ben is a happy one. And Ben must decide if his losses are worth the gains. Impeccably written, these characters feel so close to the reader, like you’re hearing the story through the phone, over miles of wires and satellite connections, as Hillary reveals the secrets of her New Zealand adventure.
“Essa”--This story felt like the beginning of a much longer one but was entirely stand alone. I think this one stuck out the most to me from the entire collection. Essa is a foundling, and a mixed race girl, in a small town of Ethan mostly made up of white people. She’s taken in by a local woman,30 years old, unmarried, and childless--Nadine. Nadine loves and cares for Essa but watches with despair as she grows up and begins to become a person completely unto herself. Who will Nadine be when she’s no longer taking care of Essa? Essa is barreling toward the future, youth and excitement fueling her desire to leave the small town she grew up in. Who will Essa become and who will she leave behind on her way there? The two women, mother and daughter, must move forward and find a way to maintain the bond that shaped their past.
There are many more great stories in this collection and we can’t wait to share it with you. Grab your copy at the store today for only $9.99! And don’t forget to attend Ms. Muir’s reading & talk at the Watauga County Public Library on Wednesday, August 3rd at 5:30pm. It will be a great opportunity to get some insight into the stories and to share your favorite passages with other literature aficionados. Recommended for people who enjoy Alice Munro and Flannery O'Connor.
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Rated 5 out of 5 stars
Mary Prewitt: Owner, Ruthless Reader