I want to talk about difficult women.
Over the last year and a half, I’ve read five books featuring heroines that fall into this category. First, The Idiot by Elif Batuman, my current favorite book of all time. Then Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, Normal People also by Sally Rooney, and Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. These books take place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in Dublin, in London, in Tokyo. The protagonists range in age from late teens to mid-30s. And all of them are about women who prove themselves to be “difficult” to society in some way. I want to unpack how these women manifest their supposed difficulty, and why I like the books so goddamn much.
Let’s work backwards. I finished Convenience Store Woman a couple weeks ago, and it was probably my least favorite of the bunch. I attribute this to the length—it was extremely short—and also to the burden of translation. While the translation has been critically acclaimed, I know that nothing compares to reading a book in its original language (and I don’t remotely speak Japanese). On top of that, the things that the prose is hailed for—how clipped and crisp it is—were alienating to me at times. Sally Rooney has received similar praise, but I find her writing warm, even though it’s sparse. Murata’s writing just felt empty. Nonetheless, the book belongs in my difficult women canon. The protagonist, Keiko Furukara, is a 36-year-old woman who has been working the same convenience store clerk job for 18 years. She relates anecdotes from her childhood about physically attacking classmates to stop them from fighting each other and asking her mother if they can bring home a dead bird from the park to eat it. Furukara is never diagnosed with anything, and her family seemingly shows little empathy for her apparent condition—they are obsessed with securing her with the trappings of a “normal” life, even though she doesn’t want or need a husband or children or a more prestigious job. Her foil slash romantic interest slash antagonist is Shiraha, a temporary employee at her store who is terminated for antipathy, incompetence, and misogynistic behavior towards customers and coworkers. They develop a symbiotic relationship, feigning an adult relationship in order to assuage their increasingly concerned friends and family members, but their enthusiasm and ire frustrates Furukara in equal measure, and also Shiraha is a huge asshole. Society finds Furukara difficult because she is utterly uninterested in traditional milestones of adult success.
In the same vein, Eleanor Oliphant’s title character is similarly misanthropic, working a middling position at an office, drinking too much and spending 100% of her time outside of the office alone. When her proximity to a minor accident entangles her in the lives of two strangers, the painful memories she’d suppressed from childhood come unfurled, and the lies she’d let herself believe about her toxic mother crumble down. I enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant considerably more, because I found the writing more immersive and inviting. Also, Raymond, the character who shakes up her life, teaches her how to be more warm and sociable, and is in general a good person despite his flaws, unlike the intolerable Shiraha. I know a character’s likability isn’t a prerequisite for a high quality book, but I found nothing redemptive about Shiraha, while Raymond was a lovingly drawn goon. The ultimate revelations about her upbringing are necessarily discomfiting, and while it’s definitely a solemn read, overall the book is buoyed by a degree of lightness. There’s something satisfying about Eleanor’s stubborn refusal to adapt her behavior to fit society’s expectations of womanhood, until her inhibiting quirks are eroded sufficiently to provide her with a degree of happiness.
And now we arrive at Sally Rooney. The queen of my heart. I read Normal People in April and Conversations with Friends in July 2018. Both books are currently available for purchase in the U.S., but coincidentally I bought both while abroad—Conversations with Friends in a bookstore in Haarlem, a town in the Netherlands when I visited there last May, and Normal People at Daunt Books when I visited London in January (I’ve been to London twice in 2019 and am going back a third time. I know I have a problem). Rooney has been named the literary voice of the millennial generation, and I think it’s a rightfully awarded title. Her writing style is so crisp and effortless that it’s easy to forget you’re even reading until she lands a line so startlingly observant and precise you have to put the book down and take a breath. Both of her books deal with young women whose lifestyles gently buck social convention.
Conversations with Friends deals with a curiously imbalanced love quadrilateral between two ex-girlfriends (Frances and Bobbi) and current best friends, students and slam poets at an Irish university, and a straight couple in their 30s (Melissa and Nick), a female photographer and a male actor. The book explores the hazardous power dynamics between men and women, especially when age is involved, but more broadly the way our capacity to hurt people expands when they love us and we love them. Frances, the narrator, reminds me of the kind of woman I’m ashamed I’d like to be—socially calculating in spite of her anxiety, conventionally attractive, straddling the line between wisdom and naïveté. No spoilers, but the health of principle characters take a downturn, and the way illness transfigures the relationships between Frances & Bobbi, Frances & Nick, and Nick & Melissa is illuminative of how society treats the physically or mentally unwell. Frances is a difficult woman. Nick is a difficult man. They need each other in equal measure as they destroy each other. It’s fascinating and heartbreaking to watch. (Also the book has an undercurrent of anticapitalism that is just delicious).
Normal People, Rooney’s follow-up, explores a lot of the same themes—how loving someone gives them the power to wound us, how society treats socially awkward or “deficient” women & girls, the joys of socialism. This sophomore effort is more conspicuously about class, but despite Marianne, the female lead, possessing greater financial capital than her love interest, Connell, she is still more of an outcast than he is. Her home life is an abusive disaster. Even when the two of them leave their small town for university and Marianne’s wealth provides sufficient grounds for social mobility, she still finds herself at the whim of men who enjoy hurting her (the idea of whether she likes being hurt is explored, both physically and emotionally, but there is no definite answer, which I appreciated). Unlike Frances, Marianne is not attractive. It is a point of psychological stress to Connell that he is so drawn to her despite her plainness, especially given that his own attractiveness is reiterated often in the book. When the omniscient third person narration is filtered through Connell’s consciousness, it becomes clear that he takes pleasure in her total devotion to him, but it also wears on him. Even the people who love Marianne continue to spurn her. She is worried she is difficult to love, and the world unfairly, cruelly, repeatedly confirms this to her. It’s shockingly satisfying to read a story not about a beautiful girl whose scars are kissed away by a handsome knight (barf), but about a woman who is realistically flawed and realistically struggles with it.
I first read The Idiot in March and April of 2018, then reread it in March 2019. It is a perfect book. I’m biased, because the protagonist, Selin, is LITERALLY ME, but I stand by my assessment. I’ve never seen so many of my oddest, most fleeting thoughts sketched so articulately in a story before. 18-year-old Selin is the American-born daughter of Turkish immigrants beginning her freshman year at Harvard in 1995. She spends the year talking about dreams and politics and language with her charismatic friends Svetlana and Ralph and falling into a confusing, consuming, all-email love affair with a mysterious, older, Hungarian mathematics student named Ivan. One of the central debates of the story is touched on by Selin and Svetlana—the question of whether one should lead an ethical or aesthetic life. Svetlana argues that one shouldn’t kill or steal or lie because it’s wrong; Selin argues that one shouldn’t do those things because they are ugly. Svetlana, more worldly, is dismissive of this argument. But it echoes throughout the rest of the book, including the last third or so, when their freshman year ends and Selin follows Ivan to Hungary, ostensibly to teach English in a village but really to see him more. She’s embroiled in a string of preposterous miscommunications and misadventures that might’ve sent anyone else packing. But Selin, slowly realizing she’s destined to be a writer, decides that she has to fully experience the lunacy in order to truly live. Their relationship culminates in a tense, loaded conversation at Ivan’s parent’s house—no spoilers, but they finally address what their meandering, cryptic, philosophical emails and in-person conversations have REALLY been about. Selin is repeatedly penalized by professors, friends, and Ivan for wanting to know what language really means, for seeking precision and answers in a world that is necessarily imprecise and withholding. She won’t accept the simple answer. She won’t do anything the easy way. And I absolutely love her for that. Some criticism of the book calls Selin emotionally distant, but I couldn’t disagree anymore. Many passages were vulnerable in a way that made me look away. Many simple admissions made me weep. Selin may be difficult, but she is not distant. She is deeply present, and that scares the hell out of people.
Of course I wrote about difficult women. I’m fairly certain I am one. I see myself in these stories, in these narratives of an outsider finding their way in or, thrillingly, their way out. It is a comfort that it’s considered worthy to write about women who frustrate you, who confuse you, who scare you. May we all be brave enough to continue a pursuit of authentic selfhood, no matter how it looks. When you plant fear, bravery blooms. I’m sure of it.