Women! In! Peril!: Stories

  • By Jessie Ren Marshall
  • Bloomsbury Publishing
  • 288 pp.
  • Reviewed by Haley Huchler
  • April 16, 2024

A witty collection of subversive, sardonic tales.

Women! In! Peril!: Stories

The stories in Jessie Ren Marshall’s debut collection span bizarre dystopias, gritty realities, and everything in between with clever control and electric wit. Women! In! Peril! presents 12 speculative tales about characters dealing with problems ranging from the mass extinction of the human race to co-parenting with an ex. Marshall’s striking voice rings loud and clear in each one as she probes the emotional complexities of being a woman who is, indeed, occasionally in peril.

In the title story, an unnamed narrator finds herself on a spaceship hurtling away from a dying Earth and toward a new planet and realizes she might be the one to decide whether they arrive or not. This strange, disjointed narrative reflects the themes that underpin the entire collection: loneliness, fear, and loss of self. Marshall’s characters contend with divorce, death, and even virgin birth (in the farcical, stirring “My Immaculate Girlfriend,” a woman struggles with her partner’s mysterious unplanned pregnancy).

One of the most fascinating stories is the collection’s first. “Annie” brings us into a curious world where a sentient sex doll — Jill of All — is gifted to a young man by his mother to soothe the pain of a recent breakup. The doll, called Annie by its new owner, can speak with the household appliances. In this world, you see, toasters can talk, and fridges have feelings. Annie bridges the gap between human and machine in unexpected ways, fearing she’ll one day become useless and be taken to the dump. Here, with dexterous nuance, the author illuminates the deep desire we all have to be needed.

Nearly every offering leaves us wanting more, which is generally a good spot for a short story to land. In “March 6, 2009,” the protagonist grapples with telling her partner about her murky past. He urges her to open up, but she fears he wishes her complicated history to be something it’s not. “He wants my life to be a piece of string,” she thinks. “Thin, taught, navigable.”

There’s an incredibly compelling scene in “Dogs,” a tale about a woman whose husband has just left her for another woman (and the other woman’s Alsatian), where the narrator finds herself startled by her own sudden grief:

“I’m almost out of noodles, so I drive to the market. It’s a shock to see so many cars in the parking lot. My husband just left me! I want to shout. Why is everybody shopping?”

A few of the selections — such as “Billy M,” about a woman on a road trip with the ghost of her ex-boyfriend — fall a bit flat, ending before they feel complete or reach an emotional resolution. Others — like “Late Girl,” about a college student with amnesia — tend toward the melodramatic. Still, most sing with fresh, captivating takes on womanhood and relationships.

This deliciously sardonic collection stands out for its deft navigation of inner turmoil. Marshall’s use of shifting realities and dystopian elements in some of the stories is reminiscent of George Saunders, while her dark humor recalls Lorrie Moore. It’s a winning combination that promises a bright future for the author.

Haley Huchler is a writer from Virginia. She has written for publications including Northern Virginia Magazine and Prince William Living Magazine. She has a B.A. in English and journalism from James Madison University, where she was editor-in-chief of Iris, an undergraduate literary magazine.

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