The women of Suzanne Rivecca’s debut short-story collection all run through the same ruts. Professionally respectable adults, they’re lapsed Catholics, self-tormenting, full of guilt (especially if they’ve been victimized, which makes them feel guiltier), nervous of their sexuality, and generally all kinds of messed-up. Death Is Not An Option isn’t nearly as tedious as it could be—each of its seven stories has at least a few striking passages—but it’s still seven variations on one character type.
The titular opening story, though, reaches a whole other plane. Often, Rivecca is tempted by rote writerly flourishes that don’t really do anything but add adjectives to emotional qualities, e.g. describing a blind man’s eyes as possessing “a colorless luster of kindness.” There’s nothing like that in “Death Is Not An Option,” a furious first-person rant from a miserable high-schooler on her way from the Midwest to Brandeis, and freaking out in the process. Emma loves Eddie Vedder, hates her town, despises men more, and can’t figure out when it’ll end: “I see a counselor with a poly-blend twinset and deep circles under her eyes, and I see myself going to her every day and talking about my fucking feelings,” she predicts of her future, and she may not be wrong. But her rage against her Catholic school—with its girls dancing to “Losing My Religion” to appease clueless administrators (who love what she deems the “Celebrating My Patriarchal Religion with a Cheesy Streamer Dance Featuring My Huge Camel Toe” dance, simply because it has the word “religion” in it)—is as eloquent as it is familiar; more than any protagonist here, Emma is someone whose insecurities don’t stop her from being funny, sarcastic, and helpless all at once, but in a way whose details ring fresh.
Many of the stories in Death Is Not An Option don’t succeed as well; all have their longeurs, and the closer, “None Of The Above,” brings in a pet baby tiger, an inadvisable move for almost any realistic writer. But all of the stories have their moments of piercing insight that cuts through the sometimes rote prose. Rivecca gets the way being genuinely victimized and guiltily self-loathing can intertwine toxically until it’s hard to tell which came first, and how to deal with either. This is (first story aside) frequently repetitive and drab—but when Rivecca shifts the prism a bit, she hits a rare, valuable insight. As a portraitist of complexedly self-loathing women who can never let themselves off the hook, she’s one to watch.