What Can We Steal From Suzanne Rivecca’s “Philanthropy”?

Title of Work and its Form: ”Philanthropy,” short story
Author: Suzanne Rivecca
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was first published in the Spring 2012 issue of Granta.  (Issue 120.)  Heidi Pitlor and Elizabeth Strout subsequently selected the story for Best American Short Stories 2013

Bonuses: Here is an interview Ms. Rivecca gave to The Short Form.  Here is the New York Times review of Ms. Rivecca’s collection, Death is Not an Option.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Juxtaposition

Cora works in Capp Street Women’s Services, a place where women who are on drugs can go to get a change of clothing and, one hopes, some help with their addiction.  It’s a big day for Cora; rich and successful author Yvonne Borneo has dropped by.  Cora really wants Borneo’s foundation to donate some money to the facility for women.  Unfortunately, DJ shows up.  A frequent customer, DJ interrupts Ms. Borneo’s visit.  The author helps Cora get some antibiotics and coffee into the young woman.  Cora fears that the episode has ruined her chances of getting any money from the Borneo Foundation…until she gets a dinner invitation from the writer.  The dinner is a tense one; Cora wants to confess that she knew Ms. Borneo’s dead addict daughter from her time in rehab.  Ms. Borneo, unaware of the personal connection, wants to understand why her daughter died and so many similar women live through their addictions.  Cora drops the bomb and the two women share a cathartic moment.

I think that what I admire most about the story is that Ms. Rivecca wastes no time introducing elements of tension into the tale.  In the first few paragraphs, we learn that A RICH AUTHOR IS VISITING A NON-PROFIT FACILITY FOR WOMEN.  Instantly, we understand; the overworked Cora in the first sentence wants money.  There are big stakes!  The more money Ms. Borneo gives, the more young women could be saved.  Before too long, Ms. Rivecca puts another ball in the air: CORA KNEW MS. BORNEO’S DAUGHTER DURING THE TIME BOTH YOUNG WOMEN WERE IN DIRE STRAITS.

Ms. Rivecca’s writing is certainly interesting enough to keep our attention, but the story means more to the reader because she gives the interesting prose additional purpose.  We’re on tenterhooks immediately.  We’re not sure exactly how the conflicts will be resolved, but the questions keep us reading and keep us entertained.  The big stakes also add tension to Yvonne Borneo’s aborted visit to the womens’ center; not only do we want the visit to go well, but we’re hoping that both women can achieve the closure they’re seeking.

Ms. Rivecca makes highly profitable use of a classic technique: juxtaposition of characters.  Placing difference characters side by side illuminates their similarities and differences, a particularly important concept in this story.  Ms. Rivecca gives us a glimpse of Angelica, Ms. Borneo’s daughter, alongside Cora when both were addicts.  She places Cora alongside DJ, juxtaposing a current user with one who kicked the habit.  She compares Cora to Yvonne Borneo; both women help others, but one does so with money and the other is in the trenches.  “Philanthropy” is all about the question that Cora and Ms. Borneo are always asking: “What is the difference between the addicts who fall apart and those who get back on the straight and narrow?”  Ms. Rivecca helps us understand the dilemma by offering two perspectives, allowing the reader to reach their own conclusions.

What Should We Steal?

  • Introduce big-stakes tension immediately.  We don’t need to know EVERYTHING in the first few pages or minutes of the story, but the reader does need a hook on which to hang their attention.
  • Examine your characters through the lenses of your other characters.  The juxtaposition of characters transforms the story’s final image from one in which two women comfort each other to a mother/daughter embrace.