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For These Young Women, 'Death Is Not An Option'

There is an archetype running through the funny, startling and ultimately perception-scrubbing stories in Suzanne Rivecca's first book of fiction. Death Is Not an Option isn't a collection of obviously connected stories, yet the female protagonists in these seven pieces are the same type of person. We see "her," if you will, go from childhood to young womanhood, in settings ranging from Michigan to San Francisco, as she reckons with a world she is constantly at odds with.

And what a compelling archetype she is. Rivecca's women and girls are the angrily confused, acerbically witty and romantically incompetent protagonists we have come to expect in fiction about young men and boys. But the worldview of these male protagonists -- a belief that life's supposed crossroads moments are utterly inconsequential -- is rarely ascribed to women. What's marvelous about Rivecca's fiction is how expertly it gets across the pain and the humor of it all. These characters long to connect, and this seemingly futile desire is crushing them.

Behind that ache is a society of well-intentioned people killing them with kindness. They can't see these women and girls as anything other than marginalized. For Rivecca's protagonists, that means they've been cast as either helpless victim (Kath, who, in the lengthiest story, "Very Special Victims," was molested) or culpable misanthrope (Isabel, who, as a girl, in "Look Ma, I'm Breathing," lied about having a vision of the Virgin Mary, then turned the disastrous experience into a memoir). In either case, they feel the pressure of responsibility to provide the world with a telling history of why they're prickly or distant.

Rivecca shows her characters trying (to echo the book's title) to find another option, one in which they're not doomed to accept that nothing will "ever come out of [them] more purely or clearly than things like this: these distilled episodes, these illuminated lamentations, sculpted in all the right places, these testimonies of harm."

Rivecca's technical skills are dazzling. She richly describes a student's interactions with a blind counselor as "akin to perpetually letting a child win: a series of soft lobs, no strategic feinting, all energies concentrated into making your body a stationary, stolid bull's-eye," and swiftly sketches a vista where the "pastel houses below looked like endless rows of Necco wafers."

Her use of the first person and the recurring attributes among her narrators -- nearly all of them are finicky about words and veterans of a Catholic-school education -- invite us to think these stories might be heavily autobiographical. But Rivecca keeps demolishing easy assumptions. Her talent allows her to impressively flex the muscle of fiction, making us keep our attention where it belongs -- on these bracing stories promising a fine career.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Oscar Villalon
Oscar Villalon is book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. A member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, he's also a long-time juror of the California Book Awards, sponsored by the Commonwealth Club. His writing has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review and The Believer, and his reviews have aired on KQED's The California Report. He lives with his wife and son in San Francisco.
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